Chestnuts: A Story of Failure

posted in: Regrets | 23

Roasting on an open flame my a$%. It started as an innocent whim, spurred by seasonal lore. But roasting chestnuts, the nostalgic Christmastime snack, unfolded as a series of disasters for me.

I’ve never cooked whole chestnuts before. That novelty is, in most cases, an incentive rather than a detraction to any cooking endeavor. So when chestnuts plopped into my lap from a package that came in the mail, it was a classic sign to figure them out, and something delicious to make with them.

I’d read Smitten Kitchen a few days ago. Deb, through her signature gorgeous photography, had made fetching chestnut cookies. She scored the chestnuts on their “flat sides,” using a paring knife before roasting. I read elsewhere in recipes to score X’s on these nuts in the same manner, too. I didn’t know what I’d do with these chestnuts once they were roasted and ready to use. But I had ideas brimming; a bunch of foodies had some good suggestions after I fired off a Tweet musing what to do with them, and I was also entertaining the thought of crusting a nice fillet of fish with the pieces, crushed up.

So as I was taking photos of the chestnuts in their raw state, as I’m wont to do before cooking or cutting, I was already writing the post that would accompany a brilliant recipe in my head: “My boyfriend tends to think of chestnuts — like pumpkins — as decoration. He scattered these nuts over the fireplace mantle, as if that were enough. The suggestion was neatly put, but it just made me want to roast them even more.”

Then I got to scoring them. Hm, which were supposed to be the flat sides? Nothing about these nuts were geometrical; none were the same type of warbly-smooth, either. So, settling on the paler brown caps, I placed my pairing knife in one diagonal and pressed. Nothing happened. So I pressed the knife a little harder, and the pebble-like nut slipped out from under it, and the next moment I was ramming my paring knife into the tip of my middle finger.

Rivers of blood. Minutes of agony and squeezing with paper towels went by, before the finger’s circulation was cut off enough to calm down. After dressing the wound, which tore across the side of my finger and part of the nail, I went back to the chestnuts. It took me half an hour to decide to tread onward with them.

Forget the scoring. Onto roasting, and I’d figure out how to open them later. Deb’s recipe had said to preheat the oven to 450 degrees to let the chestnuts roast. Another online recipe said 425. I went with 450, if only to get this over with quicker. Deb, I’m sorry to call you out again, I’m not blaming you. But these chestnuts were black, like extra dark-roasted coffee beans, when they came out. I could hear them popping like enormous kernels of corn inside the oven after the first couple minutes, and feared they’d rattled something loose in the mechanics inside.

I’m not sure, maybe my chestnuts were cursed by the spirit of Christmases past. But what came out of the oven, twenty minutes later after “roasting” was inedible. It is incredible that many of them broke open, and maybe some are still laying on the oven floor, that way. Of the ones whose shells were cracked, I was able to pry them apart, but nothing inside resembled a nut. Removed of all its shell, I couldn’t cut one open, not that I was going to press very hard anymore with a knife. Of the ones that didn’t open, lobster crackers wouldn’t do the trick. I guess I should have a classic soldier nutcracker at home, too, on the mantle perhaps. But I doubt that would do the job as well.

The worst part about trying and prying at these charcoal briquettes of chestnuts was the pressure it put on my cut finger, every time. There was a moment when a nut slipped, and squeezed the middle finger right at the tip, sending forth a fresh surge of blood. So, I’m giving up on this one for now. Thanks for all the suggestions anyway.

Headed off to a holiday party with beets in tow instead. You know, simply roasted? Good stuff, and seasonal, too.

23 Responses

  1. Daly

    Those look like horse chestnuts. I sure hope they weren’t.

  2. Rooster

    Much like fruit, chestnuts have different varieties, and it seems you had the odd-shaped kind. Scoring them before roasting is essential because it allows steam to escape while they cook, thus avoiding them to explode. I enjoy them as an after dinner treat, while still warm with a little butter & some port wine!!!

  3. Kate

    Those don’t look like any chestnuts I’ve roasted before. I’m with Daly… they look like horse chestnuts, so probably a good thing you didn’t have a chance to eat them. No description/warning with the mail?

    Chestnuts have a definitive flat side. After scoring and roasting, plopping them in cold water will loosen the skin so it’s easier to peel.

  4. arugulove

    I tried cooking with chestnuts for the first time recently and found the roasting and peeling to be absolutely horrible. So I completely sympathize. But, if you can find the right chestnuts and power through the agony, the finished product will probably be worth it.

  5. Serena

    I agree, they don’t look like the chestnuts that I attempted. I have to say that even with the right cooking kind, they are a real B%$#@^ to score, and I can relate to your cut 🙁

  6. […] reading here: Chestnuts: A Story of Failure   Tags: roasted chestnuts, roasting chestnuts, smitten kitchen Posted in: Food & […]

  7. Sarah

    OUCH! I hope your finger heals quickly. I tried chestnuts a few years ago and really struggled too. Deb made it look much easier that I remembered and your post has brought back my reality. Thank you. Enjoy the beets.

  8. My Man's Belly

    I just went through my own personal chestnut hell. Unusable index finger and thumb (for 3 days) after peeling the bastard things and having them repay me by jamming their shell shards between the skin and nail.

    I repaid them by pureeing the hell out of them. (Post coming Monday.)

  9. Brian P

    I agree those seeds in your pictures look like every Horse Chestnut I’ve ever encountered and not like any edible chestnut I’ve ever roasted.
    The wiki article on Horse Chestnut has a good picture of the nuts you seem to have. Be very careful!

  10. susan

    I am going with a few of the others, I don’t think those are edible chestnuts. Did someone reliable send them? This post takes me back to the seaweed post you wrote about harvesting your own. If people are harvesting for consumption they do need to know what the heck is edible. I think your boyfriend had the right idea with these…decorations.
    Edible roasted chestnuts are delicious and buttery and not difficult to score. Their insides are probably softer. Major natures way of telling you not to eat these buggers! (I have also found the scoring is done just so they don’t explode and for easier peeling so it doesn’t matter how you do it)

  11. Kimberley

    What a bummer! The first time that I roasted chestnuts I had no idea which side to score – I think either side is fine, really. And I followed Gourmet’s lead and roasted them at 400. So sorry to hear it was such a fiasco. I agree that they look odd, too.

    You’re probably finished with them now, but the ones I’ve bought at Trader Joe’s have been pretty reliable. (And easier to score.)

  12. cathy

    Wow, and the final disaster is that they weren’t even edible chestnuts to begin with! That has got to be a new record of idiocy in the kitchen. Thanks all for your sympathy (and sage advice).

  13. Christy

    I have a bag of chestnuts waiting for me at home. We had our own chestnut disaster a couple of years ago. I’m wondering if we steam and then roast them if they’ll be a little easier to deal with. Wish me luck.

  14. Ari

    We have chestnuts all the time, they’re a favorite in my family and they’re not as difficult as they seem
    We usually use a bigger knife and just jam a slit into one side of the chestnut and then put them in an ungreased pan until you start to smell them and the outside turns darker
    no oven required!
    maybe you’ll find this method easier..
    good luck!

  15. Erica

    I hope your finger is feeling better! I’m not sure if you’re ever going to attempt roasted chestnuts again, but my mom’s trick: soak them in warm water for a few hours or overnight and use a cleaver to score a long line across the chestnut. If you’re comfortable using a big knife, it works great. I usually bake them at 350 degrees for 30 minutes and they come out nice and soft. Good luck!

  16. hillary

    Roasted chestnuts done right is absolutely delicious. For Thanksgiving I roasted about a pound in a cast iron skillet with a cover at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. I didn’t score them before hand and none of them popped. When they cooled, I found that I could crack them with a nut cracker before peeling off the skin

  17. Caroline

    Yes, wrong (poisonous!) chestnuts. But even with the edible kind, I’ve had all of those problems — the scoring, the disastrous roasting, the impossible shelling. Now I just buy the bottled version at the supermarket. Sigh.

  18. Shruti

    I just stumbled onto your blog from midtown lunch site. First off, great blog and will definitely be adding it to my read list. Secondly, I grew up having roast chesnuts but the way my gran made them was to pan roast them. She would score the chesnuts if she could else just leave them. She would then fill a frying pan with salt and heat it up. She would then add the chesnuts in one layer to the pan, slowly roasting them and moving them aorund so one side doesnt get too roasted. The salt and slow cooking allows steam to build up and escape and the chesnut skin cracks open naturally. Salt then also gets into the chesnuts and they are delicious, eaten in front of a good film, cracking of the skin and eating the delicious meat inside.

  19. patricia

    Chestnuts are my favorite food! But I NEVER roast them. Just steam them in a steaming basket for 30+ minutes. No scoring; the steaming makes the shell soft. And no soaking; leave all the flavor inside! I like to peel them one by one with a little knife, finding comfort and peace in the way the inner skin peels off smoothly and perfectly if done right. But I’m a chestnut fiend. As a child, I had an adult simply cut each in half with a big sturdy knife, and I’d dig in to the little halves with a tiny tea spoon. If being used for pureeing or such, I’m sure this latter method is good enough!

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  21. Natasha

    Wow. I didn’t even know that some chestnuts weren’t edible, so thanks to all your readers for that info! There is a horse chestnut tree planted by a squirrel at my childhood home, and when the kids were little, we gathered them and roasted them with the same outcome as yours! (It must be nature’s way of preventing consumption by silly humans!) It’s probably safest to buy them from a market, and I like the steam, stab, roast method. My little tip: if you can’t score the skins with your nail, then don’t buy them. Curious, I did a little more research into the characteristics of sweet edible chestnuts and horse chestnuts (aka buckeyes, aka conkers – for the game). This is a good article:
    Hard to admit when the man is right though, isn’t it … 😉

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