Sunday, February 13, 2011

Harvesting Pine Nuts- Foraged Food

Alternatively titled "I now know why these things are so friggin expensive". Or "Don't try this at home if you want to keep your sanity."

Ok, so the first alternative title is accurate, but the second is slightly a stretch of the truth. It won't exactly make you crazy if you do this, but yes, you'd have to be nuts to repeatedly forage for pine nuts.

I've been procrastinating posting this piece because uhh... you'll see why in a bit. But at the request of some of the readers, I thought I'd share with you the methodology of foraging pine nuts, adding in my less than amusing experiences (ok, they're funny, but not when they happen to you), and little tips you can do to make it easier for you, should you be stubborn enough to try this for yourself.

First, find a bunch of pine trees with easily accessible branches. Make sure that the branches have both opened and unopened pine cones. (If there are no open pine cones, it likely means that the pine cones on the tree aren't yet fully ripe.) You want the closed pine cones- the open ones have already lost their nuts, and in most likelihoods, the animals have already eaten them up.
Carefully twist the closed pine cones until they come off the tree, making sure not to get sticky sap on your hands (it's worse than super glue!), and put the pine cones all into a bag. Once your bag is full, take the lot home with you.


Pine cones are comprised of many overlapping scales. Within each scale there are one or two pine nuts, depending on the species. Heat and/or dryness causes the scales to open up, releasing the nuts within. Apparently, if you just leave your bag of pine cones alone long enough, they'll release their nuts on their own. But no, I'm not like that. I wanted to do as much as I could, as quickly as I could.

What I did was:
(No, this is the part you absolutely should not be trying at home unless you happen to enjoy breathing in smoke for at least two weeks and potentially needing to call the fire department.)
I popped a pine cone into a container in the microwave. I didn't believe that the heat would really cause it to open up (after all, the only information I could get out there was from ehow.com, and you can't take their word for anything!) and I wanted to test one out quickly before I tried doing the lot.
For the first two minutes, a really relaxing pine scent perfumed my kitchen. I took out the pine cone, and- low and behold- the scales in fact did started popping open. So excited was I that I took it over to the table and used my nails to pry apart the scales the rest of the way to take out the pine nut seeds. I did that for a bit, but eventually my fingers started hurting. My nails were threatening to separate from my thumbs.
Oh yes- I exclaimed! I don't need to work this hard. Just pop it back into the microwave for a few more minutes and it'll open up the rest of the way. I won't have to pry apart the scales anymore...
And that's where I went wrong.
Less than 30 seconds later, I saw flames inside my microwave and plumes of putrid brown smoke billowing  out of  the top, bottom, and sides of the microwave. I opened the door as quickly as I could, took the half  melted container with the burning cone inside, dumped it in the sink, and poured water on it to douse out the flames.
Opened pine cones, out of the oven.
What remained was a hunk of plastic, some charred ashen remains of the pine cone, a house so filled with smoke that you could gag when entering, even after airing out the house for a few days. Oh, and my microwave? It's permanently colored a putrid brown now.
Yea, don't try this at home. Pine cones are very easily flammable!

After the initial fiasco, I was hesitant to do anything else with the rest of the cones, but I gathered up my courage, placed them in an oven tray, and popped them in the oven on 350 until they all popped open. This time I had no fires to worry about, and only the pleasantest of aromas emanated. Once all the scales opened up, I took out the lot.
Wings and seeds.

 I've read that each type of pine cone has different seeds, but I only have experience with the species that I picked. The seeds of the pine cones that I got were roughly the size of an orange seed, with brown and black mottled shells and brown wings. These covered the bottom of the oven tray. Prying out seeds was unnecessary for the most part- they fluttered out everywhere, onto the oven tray, table, floor, etc. They just took their merry old time. Shaking  helped them get a move on.

Pine nuts in their shells.
Eventually I figured out that I could put the lot in a big fabric shopping bag, tie it closed, and bash it against the wall repeatedly. This helped me vent my frustration, made my kids crack up, encouraged the seeds to come out of the cone, and kept the mess to the barest minimum.

Then Lee and I went through the wings, taking out the seeds, and putting them into a container. I'm not sure which the hardest part here was- picking out tiny seeds from among papery wings, or the 3 or 4 times little Ike picked up the container with all the pine nuts and spilled them all over the floor! Ok, no competition. Ike messing up the hard work wins, hands down.


Once we took out as many seeds as we had the energy to do, we set about to crack those tiny shells to get to the nut flesh inside.
Have you ever cracked sunflower seeds? These are the same idea. You do it with your teeth.
Little pine nuts. Not much bigger than sesame seeds.
Have you ever cracked watermelon seeds? Yea, that's more similar. Trying to deal with really small shells doesn't make things easy.
Now these are even smaller than watermelon seeds!

Ok, and this is why I was procrastinating so much to post this post. I was hoping I'd have a container filled with shelled pine nuts to take a picture to show you the end results. Only a month later, most of the pine nuts are sitting there in their shells, and this was all I managed to get for a picture.
Yes, they're teeny, tiny little pine nuts. From what I've read, there are species with much larger nuts. I don't know. I have yet to try them.
This work is very annoying and very frustrating.

So.
Am I glad I did this? Or was it a complete waste of time?
Well, it was a waste of time. But I did gain something. I gained the knowledge that I'd rather go without pine nuts than do this again. I gained the knowledge how exactly to do this, so if I ever was in a survival situation and I needed to know how to do this, I could. I gained the information about how exactly this is done.
I gained appreciation for the harvesters of pine nuts that are sold in the stores, and now I really, truly, absolutely understand why pine nuts are outrageously priced in the stores.

Would I ever do this again?
Yes. Sort of.
My husband works in a job with lots of down time. He likes to crack and eat sunflower seeds, because it gives him something to do with his time. He's not eating those seeds for the nourishment, rather for the activity that eating them provides. He requested that I take pine cones, roast them, and then send them along with him to work. He said he'd gladly eat these as munchies.

Hope you enjoyed hearing about my kitchen fiasco, as well as learning how to harvest pine nuts.

P.S. Edited to add- I actually managed to forage pine nuts properly and more easily. See this post on how to identify the right types of pine for foraging pine nuts, and how to forage them.

Do you ever use pine nuts in recipes? If you don't, how do you usually replace them in recipes? How much do pine nuts cost per pound where you live?
Do pine trees grow in your area? Do you think you'd ever try doing this, or did I discourage you from even trying?
Lastly- when was the last time YOU had a fire in your kitchen, or that you filled your whole entire house with smoke? I love to hear stories!


Linking up to the Hearth and Soul blog hop, Fight Back Friday, and Pennywise Platter Thursday

16 comments:

  1. Excellent read! Will try, but almost more for the aroma. I have also heard of other methods of using an oven to quickly make a house smell fantastic...was curious on your opinion of this?

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  2. Excellent read! Will try, but almost more for the aroma. I have also heard of other methods of using an oven to quickly make a house smell fantastic...was curious on your opinion of this?

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    Replies
    1. regardless of her opinion, i confirm yes pines have a good smell even when they are burnt : a good lesson for us humas ;)
      i tried that, it catches fire so fast and when you stop thef fire, a huge smoke is released, but it stops quick,
      but the smell isnt bad as if you burned a newspapper or something, it has the pine smell in it ;)

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  3. hahahaha been through this mess dont worry, but i dont use microwave nor oven for that,
    i crack them in the forst by a small camp fire that i use empty opened cones for :)and take them home for the hard work :)
    i love the taste of pine nuts especially when you eat many nuts at one mouthful :)

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  4. Last month was my first time trying pine nuts. I found them on close-out at .59 for a 2 oz bag and made homemade pesto. Since then, I'd been curious about the possibility of collecting my own pine nuts. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  5. I love this! We are growing tons of basil in our garden and making a good pesto just isn't the same without that pine nutty flavor! I DO want to try it at least once since our new house has an annoying amount of pinecones dropping from the trees. I actually googled "collecting pine nuts", since I thought (duh) they must come from these pine trees somehow but I'd never seen the actual seeds before. Thank you for the tips!

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  6. I love this! We are growing tons of basil in our garden and making a good pesto just isn't the same without that pine nutty flavor! I DO want to try it at least once since our new house has an annoying amount of pinecones dropping from the trees. I actually googled "collecting pine nuts", since I thought (duh) they must come from these pine trees somehow but I'd never seen the actual seeds before. Thank you for the tips!

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  7. I love this! I actually googled how to collect pine nuts because we have an annoying amount of pine trees in our new home's front yard. We have a lot of basil in our garden and pesto just isn't the same without that pine nutty flavor when I decide to make a quick pasta, last minute. I must try this no matter how complicated it sounds —at least for the experience! Thanks so much for sharing!

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  8. I enjoyed this read, thanks! Pine nuts are 50 Australian dollars a kilo. I'd like to try your oven bake method.

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  9. When is the best time to pick pinenuts/pinecones

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  10. I love this article! We have an abundance of pine cones in our yard this year and I have wondered forever if they would give me the same kind of pine nuts you get in the shops. I guess those come from the Mexican pine trees (serious) which are have much bigger cones. Anyways, seeing as pine nuts are better then cashews or macadamias for deliciousness, but as expensive per ounce as gold (almost!) I always wondered. Thanks for helping me know it isnt that easy and where they come from (not a stork ha ha ha)/ I guess pine cuts in the stores are usually hand harvested which is why they are so expensive. Now I will eat the store bought ones with much more gratitude thanks to your story and all this knowledge. Thank You!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love this article! We have an abundance of pine cones in our yard this year and I have wondered forever if they would give me the same kind of pine nuts you get in the shops. I guess those come from the Mexican pine trees (serious) which are have much bigger cones. Anyways, seeing as pine nuts are better then cashews or macadamias for deliciousness, but as expensive per ounce as gold (almost!) I always wondered. Thanks for helping me know it isnt that easy and where they come from (not a stork ha ha ha)/ I guess pine cuts in the stores are usually hand harvested which is why they are so expensive. Now I will eat the store bought ones with much more gratitude thanks to your story and all this knowledge. Thank You!

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    Replies
    1. Its not actually that impossible in the end- I recommend you read this update. http://www.pennilessparenting.com/2011/02/foraging-for-pine-nuts-revisited.html

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  12. I have several funny stories about pine nuts (we call it "snober" in Arabic). I too was looking for an inexpensive way to furnish my cooking with pine nuts. You just helped me to understand why they're so expensive & now you've REALLY made me wanna go out & try it for myself (at least once... and I'll stay away from the nuker tyvm lol). Thanks for sharing your humourous experience :)
    Kathleen in Toronto (& Florida)

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  13. Thanks for posting this! I spent some time in Siberia (a place called the Altai Republic), and the old women there harvest buckets full of these things. You can pay them the equivalent of $2-3 and they'll give you an entire cup full. I was shocked they were so cheap, so I was sure to eat plenty of them when I was there! But they also have a special tool I've never seen anywhere else that is specifically for cracking open pine cones. Maybe we need to start importing those to the U.S.!

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  14. I would try winnowing the seeds from the wings - should be eaiser.

    Then, when you have the nuts - gently crush with a rolling pin to break the case open - then winnow again to separate.

    ReplyDelete

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