Monday, February 21, 2011

Foraging For Pine Nuts- Revisited

After reading my post last week about foraging for pine nuts, I'm sure many of you were turned off from ever foraging for pine nuts. I mean, it was crazy hard work with very few results. I had given up on harvesting pine nuts. That is, until Butter Powered Bike commented about how she foraged for pine nuts, and it all seemed rather doable. Because I didn't know what I was doing last time, I decided to revisit the topic of pine nuts, and give it a fair shot, once and for all. 
Where I live, pine nuts are prohibitively expensive, and I've heard thus is the case worldwide. They cost 10 times the price of chicken breast, twice as expensive as T-bone steaks, and 33 times the price of chicken wings. 
Foraging for pine nuts, in retrospect, is actually rather doable, presuming you've got enough patience, zitsfleish, and fine motor coordination... and you really want them badly enough.

Here's how to harvest pine nuts, without going crazy and nearly burning down the kitchen in the process.
Harvesting Pine Nuts
There are pine trees in many parts of the world, and the nuts of all of them are edible. But their nuts all vary in size and thickness of shells. To make sure you've got the right type pine, you'll first want to verify a few things.
Identifying the Trees
Pine nut shells next to a dime for size comparison purposes. 
If you've got the right type of pine tree and it's the pine nut harvesting season, you'll likely see a bunch of these opened shells on the ground among the pine needles, dirt, and other vegetation surrounding the tree. This means that pine nuts have fallen from the cones to the ground and critters have already gotten to some of them. If you don't see any of these on the ground, you probably found a tree that has the wrong type of pine nuts, or you've come at the wrong time. 
But, if you see those, you're most probably in luck. You've found the right type of tree.

Another clue you'd need to know that you've found the right type of tree and it's the right season is by looking up and seeing if the trees contain open pine cones. Not tiny pine cones. You need the pine cones to be big with big pine nuts.
If any pine cones have fallen to the ground, it's a good idea to inspect them. See how big that cone is? In the middle picture, do you see the heart shaped black area towards the center of each scale of the pine cone? That's where the pine nuts grow, and if the pine cone isn't big enough to hold large pine nuts, you're nearly guaranteed that any pine nuts you'll find will be too small to be worth making the effort.
Look at the cone on the right- see the two nuts inside? Yea, that's the size those holes need to be. Big enough to fit those large nuts.

Even if at first you don't find the type of cone you're looking for, don't give up so quickly. Sometimes there will be a few types of pine within one small area. Check out to see if maybe there are large coned pines nearby.

Gathering the Nuts
Ok, so what now?
Now's the fun part.
Pine cones shed their nuts on the ground. Nature will take care of them eventually, but at the moment, its a race to see who will get them first- you, or the critters.
Pine nuts in their shells, with a dime for size comparison.
Oh my, I'm in love with my new camera!
See how clear that shot is?
Drop down on your hands and knees and start crawling like a baby all over the ground underneath the trees. This gets you close enough so that you can easily spot the nuts that are littering the ground without needing to strain. No, you can also gather the nuts without going down on your knees, but you'll miss a large chunk of them and you'll most likely end up hurting your neck in the process.

You'll probably want to be wearing clothes that protect your knees, like jeans or some other thick material. The ground is likely covered in pine needles that can be very sharp, so be careful.

The nuts you'll be finding look like the picture at the right, and they vary in color from a light brown to a black, with any shade in between possible.

So, crawl on your hands and knees, wearing clothes with large pockets that you can stuff with any nuts you come across. I usually found that once I found one nut in an area, I'd usually be able to find at least 5 to 20 more nuts in a 2 foot radius easily. The nuts that I found got caught within blades of grass and buried beneath pine needles, and didn't really roll down hills, so just look directly beneath the trees, even if they're on an incline. I found the greatest concentration of nuts usually right around the base of the tree.

A word of warning- be prepared to look completely and utterly ridiculous. Sunglasses and a disguise might work if you don't want to be recognized while caught in the act.
 If you're in a public area, you may want to come up with a story like "I've lost my ring somewhere here and I'm trying really hard to find it!" and have a ring ready at your disposal to "miraculously discover" once you get approached by people asking what on earth it is that you're doing. Of course, you can always tell them the truth and say "These nuts sell for 30 dollars per pound in the store; I'm getting my own for free."
A few of the people who approached me knew exactly what I was doing, as they regularly gathered pine nuts themselves.
How long does this take? I gathered a nice 2.5 pounds of nuts in roughly 30 minutes. Not bad at all!

A word on soot
Chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins.
Pine nut shells are in fact a light brown, but they get their darker coloring from a soot like substance that covers the nuts but comes off in time. If you handle the pine nuts, your hands will be covered with this black soot that you probably won't realize is there until you've touched your face. By that point your face will have become so blackened by the soot that you'll look so reminiscent of the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins that people will expect you to break out into a rendition of Step in Time.
Fortunately my husband was there when I gathered my pine nuts and was able to point out to me all the filthy spots on my face, but if you haven't got a foraging partner, bring along a mirror and a few moist wipes so you can clean your face before returning to polite society.

See all that black stuff inside the container? That's the black soot that you don't want all over your face.

Cracking the Nuts
A word of warning- these pine nut shells are hard. You do not want to be cracking them open with your teeth; it's a toss up which will crack first- your teeth, or the shells.

From experience, pine nuts can be divided into two categories. Those that come with a crack and can be opened easily with a knife, and those that have no cracks and must be opened with more forceful methods.

Separate out all cracked nuts from the rest. This makes much more efficient use of your time. You'll notice that there are some with large open cracks and other with thin teeny tiny cracks. Depending on the size of the crack, you'll have to use a different knife.
To open the nuts, place the nut firmly on the table, wedge the knife into the crack, and twist the knife while keeping the nut in one place.
The two halves should pop open, leaving you with some very delicious looking pine nuts.

Yummy pine nuts
Once you shell the nuts, you'll see an edible papery brown coating on the nuts, not unlike the coating on peanuts within their shells. You can take these off or leave them on, as I have. 

Pine nuts, with the brown coating.
For the rest of  the nuts, you need to find a more powerful method of breaking them. There's a delicate balance. Too light and you won't do anything; too heavy a hand and you'll either smash the nut to smithereens or send it flying away, or both.
I do recommend using safety goggles or at the very least glasses to prevent yourself from getting blinded by flying shrapnel. 

My recommendation? A hammer. Lightly, don't smash it too much. But not too light. Practice makes perfect. Make sure to hit on the center of the nut or it will fly across the room.
I've also heard of people using mason jars, but I didn't have much success with that.
A wrench might possibly work, but I couldn't figure out how to get a light enough touch to not smash it to smithereens. 

Well, there you have it. How to forage pine nuts and keep your sanity. Its definitely not hopeless.
I plan on doing this again and again and again. It was really worth it! My kids enjoyed it a lot. The nuts are soft enough that my son was able to eat them even without molars. They're also absolutely delicious!
For a time vs money breakdown on pine nuts- wait for tomorrow's post where I talk all about hourly wages for different tasks.

To what lengths are you willing to go to save money on things that you like that are expensive? Would you care what people thought of you if it meant you'd be able to save lots of money? Would you go crawling around on the ground to get pine nuts in front of an audience? Would you dumpster dive when people are watching? Or does "social normalcy" stop you from doing things like this?

Linking up with the Hearth and Soul blog hop. 


  1. I can't wait to do this. I love pine nuts and there are a zillion pine trees around my house, so I won't have to worry about looking silly. However, it wouldn't even stop me then. I like being silly.

  2. ok penny this sentense helped a lot quote
    ""If you don't see any of these on the ground, you probably found a tree that has the wrong type of pine nuts,"""" quote
    i mean i noticed that canary pines have the bigest pollen flower, and also have a good size nut cone and nuts,
    but from the same type of trees i got different results, some have hard shells and empty" no nuts in the shell, but some are acctually filled with big soft shelled nut, i was freaked out and didnt know why,
    and i confirm, the good cone wih the good nuts was from a tree that has lots of cones on the ground already,, and i picked the good one from the ground actually :)
    thanks a lot

  3. have been out cruising the pine trees in my neighbourhood with this in mind, not really knowing what i'm doing. THANKS for this post, very helpful. and no, i don't mind looking like a loon one bit (no shame) x

  4. Thanks so much! I love pine nuts - especially on salads - but I can hardly afford the produce, let alone the pine nuts.

    I will be doing this and hoping my puppy doesn't scramble for the pine nuts or the hammer!

  5. Thanks so much! I love pine nuts, especially on salads - and I can hardly afford the produce for the salad, let alone the pine nuts.

    Just hope my puppy doesn't drive me crazy with this activity! I can see him going for everything I try to pick up and jumping at the hammer and barking! Flying nuts will just add to the circus environment!

  6. Suggestion: place pine nuts in a plastic bag or lay a napkin over them before hammering...that way the shells don't fly everywhere and it's a much easier to clean up.

  7. keep the cones too. If you use reall charcoal on a barbi they make excellent fire lighters

  8. Instead of using a hammer to crush the uncracked nuts, you could sprout them. By sprouting them, you increase the nutritional benefit as well as allowing the hulls to naturally crack, making them easier to split apart.

    1. Nomadicnymph@gmailMarch 18, 2015 at 6:24 PM

      What's the best way to sprout them and are they still crunchy afterwards. I recently purchased broccoli sprouts at the store and would love to know how to sprout these as well.

  9. I would put them in a bag and roll over them with a marble rolling pin. This might crack them without making them into dust. I am excited to try this. Do all pine trees contain nuts? Are there certain types of pine trees that are the best? Thanks. Deb

  10. I have a giant Mediterranean stone pine tree in my yard it produces huge (quarter pinky size shells) but no nut. do I need to buy an opposit sex tree or ? I want it producing and because of the tree it is I know its edible. please anyone and let me know. ( I googled it and didn't see an answer)
    thanks ,

  11. You can toast them with the shell on, and after they cool, place them between two towels and roll over them with a rolling pin. The shells will come off quite easily.

  12. I did a bit of research and from what I can tell, you should start collecting pine cones in September - October. So glad I found your site, loving the info.

  13. So, this leads to another question. Do you have any ideas of what to do with all of the dozens of empty pine cones that you collect?

    1. Thank make good kindling to start a fire with but NEVER cook food over a fire started with pinecones or needles as turpentine comes from this plant. You may be able to sell them to local artist, private craft store, or on sales site.

    2. It is entirely safe to cook food over a fire started with pine cones, or that contains pine wood. Turpentine is a natural part of the tree, and is harmless unless ingested directly as distilled turpentine, or inhaled in an enclosed space where the vapor is at a high concentration.

  14. Hi, do you know what species of pine you were harvesting here? I ask because I have been harvesting pine nuts from P. edulis in Colorado, U.S., and there is no soot, or cracked shells. The shells are pretty soft; they can be cracked between the teeth. I'm wondering if the species from which you harvested is used for commercial pine nuts, or if different species in your region are used. Thanks so much for any help you can provide!

    1. Hey! I also live in colorado and the ones she had are from california. The ones me and you have are pinion tree nuts. Our shells are a lot thinner. The ones she had are most likely the gray pine's nuts

  15. I got a big pine cone for christmas this year from my parents (I love pine nuts, so it was very much appreciated) and have had a bit of trouble opening the shells. Biting didn't work at all and pliers ended up pretty much crushing the nut as well:-( I'll try your way tomorrow, hopefully with more success!

  16. Thank you very much for the informative article. I just started foraging this fall, and here on the east coast I've collected hickory nuts, beech nuts, and oyster mushrooms. I really enjoy pine nuts, but they are more expensive than what I'd like to spend for them. I will definitely be trying to collect them next fall.

  17. The best way to get just the right amount of force to break the hard, thick shell without mashing the nut inside is to position the nut in the crook of a wrench then hit the wrench/nut with a hammer.

  18. I love this post and am so glad I found it. (Thank you, Pinterest!) I would definitely be up for foraging for pine nuts. I am a fellow fruggie and am not in the least ashamed to go to great lengths and time consumption to acquire quality foods (among other things) for cheap or free. Social normalcy means nothing to me. (I wrote an eBook called "Countercultural: Rebel With A Cause" yeah....not worried what people think, although they might be curious to know what I think about their bandwagon behaviors---you know, like paying $5 for a tiny bag of pine nuts when they can be acquired for free if you don't mind looking like a chimney sweep...which I do not. lol)Times are tough and funds need to be stretched and saved. I am new to foraging, but learning all I can as fast as I can. Thanks for this post!

  19. I am sooooo into this. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for the right trees!

  20. LOL.. I enjoyed that. Made me both laugh AND want to give it a go! thanks for posting!

  21. Thank you for the info. No worries what others think. They don't really exist anyway


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