I love Christmas music—just the first few notes of a song can conjure up memories of listening for reindeer, decking the halls, and longing to be home for Christmas. Of course, there are some holiday tunes that just don’t ring true for me. The closest I ever came to a white Christmas in Tennessee was the one magical year we awoke to falling flakes, a light dusting that melted before the presents were open—and thankfully, I never dealt with the traumatic and confusing experience of seeing my mommy kiss Santa Claus.
One Christmas song, however, has made me wonder if I'm missing out on a quintessential holiday experience. Popularized by Nat King Cole and recorded on countless holiday albums since, the opening line and alternate title to “The Christmas Song ” is so evocative that I decided I needed to know what “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is all about. Perhaps this could be a new tradition for my young family. Maybe when my son Will is grown and this song plays, he will be reminded of the smell of chestnuts, the crackle of the fire, and his childhood.
Because Will, being eighteen months old, is not yet ready for activities involving patience or fire, I decided to test drive this potential new tradition with my lifelong friend (and Food52's Design and Home Editor), Amanda Sims. I dove into the world wide web for a little guidance, and found, as you might expect, many conflicting instructions. Some sites suggest scoring the flat side of the chestnut, some the round side. Some directed to cover the pan, some did not. Some called for a few drops of water, some a few cups, and some for soaking the chestnuts overnight. I decided to experiment and test a few methods, and below are the basic steps and lessons we learned from day one of our chestnut education.
During this most wonderful time of the year, chestnuts are available in the produce section of many grocery stores. Look for nuts that are not cracked, show no signs of mold, and do not rattle when you shake them. If a chestnut rattles, it has begun to dry out and pull away from its shell and will be too hard when cooked.
Some sources recommended soaking chestnuts overnight before roasting them, but we did not find that the extra step significantly accelerated the cooking time or bettered the resulting texture. (Neither did it detract from the process or the results, however, so if soaking them is something you'd like to do I won't stop you.)
There are many suitable options for a chestnut roasting pan. There exist traditional chestnut and popcorn pans designed specifically to do the job, but any cast iron pan will do. We used a classic cast iron skillet that I felt confident could not be damaged by the fire.
I was such a complete novice that I had to check the definition of “open fire” to see whether we needed to use an outdoor campfire or if an indoor fireplace would suffice. (For the record, both are technically open fires.) We opted to use an outdoor fire pit because it just seemed more fun—and as it turns out, there are a few distinct advantages to being outside. An outdoor fire gives you 360º access to your chestnuts as they roast, which might be a little easier when tending to them and dodging smoke. When we were adding water to the pan, which would release clouds of steam, we may have felt a bit cramped around a smaller indoor fireplace.
On the other hand, using an indoor fireplace would have the major advantage of filling your home with the scent of roasting chestnuts and burning coals, and the scene also might look more like a cozy picture from a vintage Christmas card. Whether your fire is indoor or outdoor, please be safe and carefully supervise all children and adults who act like children.
For ideal roasting conditions, you need good, hot coals, so let the fire roar long enough to burn the wood down a bit. While you wait, continue prepping the chestnuts.
Rinse your chestnuts and check again for any signs of damage, drying out, or mold (discarding the weak). To prevent your chestnuts from exploding, you must cut an X into the shell so pressure can escape as they roast. I read conflicting opinions on whether to score the flat side or the round side of the chestnut, so we tried both. Ultimately, they roast just as well either way, but I recommend scoring the round side for two reasons. Primarily, for safety: When I scored the flat side of a chestnut, the round side wobbled against the cutting board, making me a little nervous that the nut would slip away and I would score my finger instead. Also, for ease of peeling: We found that the chestnuts with the scored round side were slightly easier to peel after they were roasted.
Be generous with the size of the X you score; too small and you'll have a hard time peeling away the shell once they're ready to eat.
After your fire has burned long enough to develop some good coals, make a bed of coals to one side of the fire. Attempting to roast in the flames will likely char your chestnuts and make your arms very sore from holding a heavy pan for an extended period of time.
As I mentioned, opinions differ about the best way to roast chestnuts over an open fire, so we tried a few batches (soaked/not soaked, uncovered/covered) to experiment, finally setting on the following method:
Pour just enough water into the pan to cover the bottom (a few glugs), place the chestnuts in the pan, and cover. Carefully nestle your pan onto the bed of coals. Every three or four minutes, toss the chestnuts with the tongs, adding a small splash of water if the pan is dry. After 15 to 20 minutes, when the outsides have darkened and the scored edges have begun to peel away, revealing the meat of the nut, carefully remove the pan from the fire.
Part of the beauty of open fire cooking is that the variables are less controlled than in a standard oven, so you may need a little more or less time and water depending on the heat of your fire (and, of course, on your texture preferences). By covering the pan, you retain more moisture, thereby steaming the chestnuts as they roast so they cook more uniformly; by our test, this also resulted in a softer roasted chestnut. If you prefer your chestnuts a little chewier or even al dente, try dry roasting in an uncovered pan, tossing often for at least 20 minutes. If you are using a traditional chestnut roasting pan, there will be holes in the lid of it, and I imagine this would give you a happy medium between the two methods.
One of my favorite parts of my first chestnut roasting experience was testing these variables. In a fit of inspiration and fearlessness, we sloshed a bit of beer into one batch. As the beer evaporated out it smelled sweet and wonderful, but got a little gooey in the pan and didn't seem to much effect the flavor of the nuts. Plus, you should never introduce alcohol over an open flame! But it was fun; I encourage you to follow your instincts and test some hypotheses of your own—while keeping in mind that playing with fire is just that.
While your chestnuts are roasting, melt some butter and prepare whatever spices you wish to add to your nuts (one of our favorite combinations was butter, rosemary, and salt—but just butter and cinnamon was great, too). If you are roasting indoors, you can melt your butter on the stove, but Amanda and I just tossed our butter into an extra pan and held it close to the flames. Chop any fresh herbs that you want to add.
When your chestnuts seem done, remove one, give it a moment to cool, then carefully peel off the shell. As the shell comes off, experience that toasty, nutty aroma that launched a thousand Christmas cover songs. Inside, you should find a tiny, golden brain-shaped ball of goodness. Slice it in half to check if it is cooked through to the core, then enjoy your first taste of what all this fuss is about. Roasted chestnuts have a toasty, nutty, earthy flavor and a texture somewhere between a soft cashew and a cannellini bean. If this test chestnut is ready, take the pan off the fire and peel the rest when they're cool enough to handle.
Mix your preferred herbs and spices in with the melted butter with salt, then let the chestnuts swim around in the sauce. Breaking the chestnuts in pieces before soaking allows even more of the sauce to seep in—a great thing. Choose spices that support rather than overwhelm: A bit of rosemary brought out the earthy side of the chestnut, while cinnamon played off the sweeter undertones, though we never tested adding sugar, which we thought might be cloying.
However you decide to season your chestnuts, add another log to the fire and dig in while they are still warm. A cheese plate with some bread and apples would pair nicely. When the nuts cool, they harden and lose some flavor, but we had no trouble eating all of them by that point.
As we cleaned up butter off everything, Amanda asked, “So, what do you think? Is it worth it?” Yes, we agreed. The chestnuts were delicious and satisfying, though definitely more labor intensive than your average snack. Once a year during the holidays, with good friends or family, roasting chestnuts on an open fire would be a wonderful tradition, because the activity is as enjoyable as the final product. Sure, it takes a while to build a fire, develop coals, and roast, but this gave me time to chat, laugh, and catch up with one of my best friends. As we cleaned up our mess, we discussed possible variations to try the next time, and I realized we could look forward to perfecting our technique through the years.
In conclusion—although it’s been said many times, many ways—Merry Christmas to you!