Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose… Sounds about right to me as evening temperatures are dipping to just below freezing and glittering frost fills the garden come dawn.
The first signs of autumn can only mean that chestnuts are already ripe somewhere near you.
How To Harvest Chestnuts
First, comes the when. When are chestnuts ready to harvest?
The short answer is that chestnuts typically ripen between September and October. This can change year-to-year, and vary region-to-region. Within this periodicity, chestnuts themselves follow a cycle with some excellent and less than ideal harvests.
The chestnut harvest can last for 4-5 weeks. So, if you have access to a tree, you’ll want to check it frequently, every few days is a good time frame to shoot for.
Chestnuts are ready to harvest when they drop from the tree.
There is no need to shake the tree or climb it to knock more spiky burrs down. Chestnuts are fully mature when they drop from the tree of their own free will, as it were, or due to their own weight.
Even then, you will need to wait until the burrs split open ever so slightly. If you rush and attempt to open them while still green, the seed inside will be unripe.
To get that deliciously sweet nut out of the bur, all you have to do is roll it gently under your foot, with just enough pressure to release the nuts inside. Don’t stomp or use unnecessary force, for you don’t want to damage the goodness inside.
Once the chestnut is removed, search for worm holes before putting it away in your basket or foraging bag. Then head straight to the next bur.
Chestnut Forager’s Tips
Search for the biggest chestnuts, leaving plenty of the smaller ones for nature.
Harvesting chestnuts takes time, so be sure to wear leather gloves and be patient with the process. And take pleasure in knowing that a fantastic meal or dessert is to come.
If you missed the chestnut harvest for yourself, you will still be able to find them at markets and stores for weeks before Christmas. You can also purchase them frozen.
Foraged chestnuts are highly perishable. They can be refrigerated or stored in the cellar at lower temperatures, for a few weeks. Even so, you must eat them shortly after harvest, otherwise, they will get moldy.
For longer term preservation, chestnuts can be stored:
- in sand – as with carrots, you can layer chestnuts in fine, dry sand for a few months before eating
- or in the freezer, whole, as is – wash and thoroughly dry them first, then store in freezer bags
- as boiled and frozen chestnuts – once chestnuts are roasted or boiled, remove their skins and store them in the freezer
- in dehydrated form – dried chestnuts can be stored for a few months and soaked in water before use
- as chestnut liqueur – chestnuts soaked in alcohol makes for a wonderful cocktail treat
If you aren’t sure what you want to do with them right away, it seems that freezing is your best bet.
Who Else is in Search of Chestnuts?
If you are out harvesting chestnuts in the wild, you are going to have some competition.
Squirrels, wild boar, deer, turkeys, chipmunks, shrews, mice and chestnut weevils may get to those most desirable nuts first. Remember, you are foraging on their territory.
As when foraging for anything from nature, take all that you need and nothing more. Don’t leave any litter among the leaves either. If you find someone else’s garbage, pack it out. That’s responsible foraging.
When we all learn how to share, there will be enough for everybody.
Can You Eat Chestnuts Straight From the Forest?
Absolutely not, or at least not for most people. The reaction varies from person to person, though I can assure you, cooked is where the magical flavor is at.
Chestnuts shouldn’t be consumed raw. They must be cooked in order to tame their high levels of tannic acids. If they are eaten raw, they may cause stomach irritation and intestinal issues in people who have kidney and/or liver problems. As for pregnant women, it’s a no on the raw nuts, a yes on the cooked chestnuts. See the benefits of eating chestnuts below.
Not to Be Confused With Horse Chestnuts
Horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum), commonly called conkers, are the one and only chestnut look-alike. What you need to know about them is that they are not edible.
The Latin name of the edible sweet chestnut is (Castanea sativa). For those of you with botanical knowledge, this signifies a great difference. Yet, their appearances can be deceiving to the untrained eye.
However, if you look closer, you’ll find that conkers are more round, without a tassel on the tip. You know, the ones that kids use for playing games.
You’ll definitely feel the difference when it comes time to harvest them. Edible chestnuts are covered in spiky burrs (don’t forget your leather gloves for harvesting), whereas, conkers are green bumpy things with little spurs. When they are side-by-side, there is no mistaking one for the other.
Find more detailed info from Michigan State University about the difference between horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts.
Additional reading: Horse Chestnut Laundry Soap from Zero-Waste Chef
Benefits of Eating Chestnuts
Chestnuts are wonderful sources of vitamins and minerals from the wild. Setting their incredible flavor aside, there are several reasons to include them in your diet. They add diversity, encourage you to eat locally (if you live where they grow) and nourish your body with elements that benefit your health
Chestnuts are a good source of antioxidants, as well as:
- Vitamin B6
Most people find the flavor both nutty and appetizing.
Try them for yourself with some inspiration from below.
Appetizing & Festive Ways to Prepare Chestnuts
Chestnuts can go either the sweet or savory route. We’ve included recipes for both appetites, ranging from hearty casseroles to candied chestnuts.
1. Roasted Chestnuts
Not all of us have access to an “open fire” in our homes. Don’t let that stop you from serving freshly roasted chestnuts for the holidays.
Instead, you can roast chestnuts in the oven.
Or get out your cast iron pan and roast away.
Alternatively, head outside, heat up your grill and nibble on your roasted chestnuts while the snow begins to fall. This is the most romantic way to roast them under the stars, provided the temperature is just right.
If you smell the unmistakable aroma of roasted chestnuts on the street, there is a wonderful chance a vendor is nearby. Be sure to stop by and grab a bag or two.
2. Chestnut Soup
If your evening meal calls for an elegant touch, serve this creamy roasted chestnut soup for starters.
You don’t even need dinner guests to enjoy it. Simply make it for yourself and label it under self-care.
Trust me, it’s a gorgeous restaurant-quality soup. You’ll love it.
3. Chestnut Stuffing
If your holiday meal plans include a roast goose, you are going to want to dive into this chestnut stuffing.
Serve it at Thanksgiving, make a fresh batch again at Christmas, toss in a few cranberries to mix it up. Make it a day in advance to save time. Freeze it to save even more.
There’s pretty much nothing that this stuffing can’t do. Not to mention that you don’t even need to stuff anything to enjoy it.
Pile it in a pretty bowl and let people take as much as they want, as is.
It takes cornbread, roasted and peeled chestnuts, butter, onion, celery, pork sausage, garlic, spices, eggs and finely chopped fresh herbs.
There are plenty of chestnut stuffing recipes out there, take your pick!
- Paleo Sausage Apple and Chestnut Stuffing (Gluten-Free) from Perchance to Cook
- Chestnut and Cranberry Stuffing from Food.com
- Apple and Chestnut Stuffing from Martha Stewart
4. Chestnut Purée
If you are lucky, you can buy frozen chestnut purée from the store. It’s a favorite and delicious non-dairy treat for me, from time to time. Or you can take the extra effort to make it at home.
One thing is for sure, it will taste different than store-bought. For you get to choose the additional ingredients. You can make a sweetened version with milk and vanilla.
Keeping it simple is another option, with just chestnuts, sugar and water, vanilla optional.
You can serve your homemade chestnut purée on pancakes, stirred into your oatmeal or yogurt, spread on crackers, you name it.
If you are seeking a savory chestnut purée, check out this satisfying recipe made with roasted chestnuts, chicken broth and thyme.
5. Marrons Glacé
For a really sweet bite, look no further than a chestnut-inspired Italian treat.
Before getting started on this sugar-coated affair, please know that it takes 4-6 days to make these individual nutty bites.
Their appearance is simple, though their flavor is out to impress. Here’s how you can make your own marrons glacés, or candied chestnuts, for those of you who don’t yet speak French or Italian.
6. Mont Blanc Dessert
Remember that chestnut cream from above? Now add some whipped cream and a tart base with crumbled meringues to the picture.
It’s decadent to say the least. Every bite will be an absolute pleasure to put in your mouth.
Please be sure to fill yourself with a proper meal before indulging in this dessert. Or at least have a hot cup of coffee nearby (black, without sugar) so that the sweetness is balanced out.
There’s more than one way to make this alluring dessert, here are a few recipes to get your creativity going:
- Mont Blanc Tart from Foodaciously
- The Most Delicious Chestnut Dessert (Mont Blanc) from Tasty
- Mont Blanc Chestnut Cake from Ricardo Cuisine
7. Chestnut and Parsnip Purée
Let’s take a look at a couple of savory dishes after so much sweetness.
If you are up for a culinary challenge, this chestnut and parsnip purée is what you want.
Ingredients-wise, it again pairs chestnuts with thyme. To make it you’ll also need parsnips, potatoes, milk, butter, garlic, grated Parmesan cheese and unsweetened chestnut purée. Better learn how to make that purée – it appears in many chestnut recipes.
8. Chestnut Ravioli with Butter-Sage Sauce
While you can learn to make chestnut pasta, which is without a doubt delicious, there’s nothing better than stuffed pasta.
That is, ravioli stuffed with chestnuts, pancetta, onion, butter, chopped apple and parsley. All in a homemade dough, of course.
And nothing says I love you like a butter and sage sauce. Well, maybe some of the chestnut desserts do, but this one won’t dramatically increase your list of calories to work off.
9. Chestnut Flour Pound Cake
A little less sweet, or more festively covered with icing and chocolate – your pound cake, your choice.
I must admit, chestnut flour is not typically on our shopping list. However, if you have some in your kitchen, you might want to try giving these chestnut flour recipes a try:
- Bundt Cake with Chestnut Flour and Chocolate Drops from The FeedFeed
- Chestnut Pound Cake Recipe from Backyard Forager
- Chestnut Spice Cake with Chocolate Glaze from Yummly
10. No-Bake Chestnut Cheesecake
It’s time to whip up another batch of chestnut purée for these miniature no-bake cheesecakes.
When you have purée on hand, it seems that any dessert is possible.
Easy, uncomplicated, mouthwatering, what more could you ask for? It makes for a merry treat too, served with a side of egg nog, pure holiday yum.
For a “real” cheesecake with cream cheese and graham cracker crumbs to serve to a crowd, take a look at this chestnut cheesecake recipe. For a creamy, chocolatey version, be sure to sample this chocolate chestnut cheesecake instead.
11. Chestnut Liqueur
Brandy and sugar-soaked chestnuts sure sound good to me! This chestnut liqueur has really got me thinking about whipping up a batch, as fresh chestnuts are currently available at the market and we’ve recently been gifted with a couple of liters of brandy (bartering our services for locally produced goods).
All you need is:
- 17.5 oz. (500 grams) peeled chestnuts
- 5.3 oz. (150 grams) sugar
- 200 ml water
- 500 ml brandy
Mix it all together, wait and make your own cocktail, chestnut-style. I wonder how that would taste in coffee?
12. Roasted Pumpkin Chestnut Soup
Warming soups always soothe the soul. They even have the power to gift us back some of the life energy that is lost to everyday troubles.
When in doubt about what to serve, soup is always the answer. At holiday gatherings, when you are surrounded by people, be sure to have a potful of heartwarming soup on hand.
With any luck, you’ll still have some squashes or pumpkins left in your cellar/cold storage. Now is the time to use them before they spoil in the coldest temperatures.
After pie, the next best place to use them is in soup.
To lighten the mood, you should definitely give this roast pumpkin soup with chestnuts a go. Making it dairy-free is easy, simply eliminate the cream and enjoy, creamy as is.
13. Brussels Sprouts With Chestnuts
I know, some of you don’t exactly enjoy Brussels sprouts, but hear me out. Maybe you just haven’t eaten them in the right way. Here are 11 recipes that will attempt to convince you that Brussels sprouts are in fact, tasty.
On top of that, here is an appetizing recipe for Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and bacon. Because, as you all know, bacon makes everything taste better. Chestnuts add a special dimension of flavor too.
Who knows, you might even enjoy them with a drizzle of maple syrup. You never know until you try.
14. Venison Sausage and Chestnut Casserole
While chestnuts appear aplenty in Italian recipes, English chefs are also known for selectively putting chestnuts in their best dishes. As soon as I can find some venison sausages, this stew will be in my pot. Complete with red wine and mushrooms and some mustard mash on the side.
If you’d like, you can even put it in the slow cooker for 4-6 hours, so you can work up an appetite while you wait.
15. Chestnut Brownies
Creamy, chocolatey and icingly beautiful, chestnut brownies are the perfect holiday treat for guests and yourself alike.
For a simpler version without gluten or refined sugar, this chocolate chestnut brownie recipe takes the cake.
‘Tis the season to eat chestnuts aplenty.
It’s nearly impossible to indulge in all of these fabulous recipes in one season. Pick a few that sound interesting and jot down a few more in your cookbook or notebook for the next chestnut season.
And don’t forget about chestnut logs, chestnut mousse, chestnut smoothies, chestnut truffles, chestnut rice and so on.
When chestnuts are in season, enjoy them salty or sweet, every chance you get.
Cheryl Magyar is a sustainable lifesyle designer and environmental freelance writer with more than twenty years experience of living a simple life close to nature. It all started at a young age with a love for the outdoors, followed by a keen interest in goats, which turned into a love for raising ducks and mangalica pigs on the Plains of Hungary. Currently she is homesteading in Breb, Romania, amidst charming haystacks, with her husband and homeschooled daughter. Their land and their life’s work is aptly named ForestCreekMeadows.
She is an avid organic gardener who can often be found eating nourishing “weeds” and making herbal infusions, just as she can be seen planting native trees investing in rewilding the land. Follow on Instagram and sign up for their newsletter for more inspirations on living a sustainable life.