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How to Roast, Cut, and Peel Chestnuts—Without Going Nuts

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Roasting chestnuts is supposed to be easy, right? You just cut an X in the bottom of each nut—without cutting your hand open in the process—and bake them on a sheet pan, peel, and eat (or use in a recipe).

But if you’ve tried this, you’ve probably discovered that chestnuts can be crazy impossible to detach from their shells and skins, making the yield ridiculously low and the process frustrating enough to give up on.

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Don't give up on me!
Don't give up on me! Photo by Mark Weinberg

As it turns out, the fix is simple. There’s one missing step! Hot roasted chestnuts should be allowed to steam for 8-10 minutes before peeling. Steam loosens the skin between the nut and the shell, making the shells easier to remove. I used to wrap the hot nuts in a heavy towel—and that worked adequately enough for me to have posted the method without further ado. And that really was my plan.

But on the day before Thanksgiving this year, I transferred hot chestnuts from the oven to a covered tortilla warmer, thinking that the nuts might stay hot longer while I peeled them. Not only did the nuts stay hot longer, the shells and skins came off easier than ever—like a dream! I peeled 1 1/2 pounds of chestnuts in a few minutes (including the time it took me to style and Instragram the process).

Here’s why I think this worked: The tortilla server obviously captured more of the steam from the hot nuts. And, without a towel absorbing some of the moisture, there was more steam and moisture to loosen the skins. Since the container actually did keep the nuts hotter longer, the last ones were as easy to peel as the first ones. Suddenly chestnut stuffing (and chestnut side dishes, crème de marrons, chestnut puree…) is no longer such a chore, and it’s easy to serve hot roasted chestnuts with drinks before dinner.

Here’s the whole (thrilling!) process in a nutshell:

Chestnuts are prone to mold. Buy them at a store with high turnover, but always sniff for moldiness before buying.

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Cut two 1-inch gashes to form an “X” in the tan or discolored rounded area at the bottom of each nut. Here’s how to cut the “X” without going to the emergency room: Set a nut on its flattest side, on a pot holder or folded towel, and anchor it firmly with the fingers of your left hand (if right-handed). Keeping fingers out of the way, insert the tip of a small sharp knife into the nut at the top edge of the coarse, discolored area (not the pointy tip), and press and rock the blade downwards towards the towel or pot holder at an angle, making a 1-inch cut through the shell. Make an X by repeating this motion of pressing and rocking the blade in the other direction. See the video below:

I used to think a single gash cut anywhere in the nut would do the job, but testing proved otherwise. The “X” at the discolored bottom not only prevents the nuts from exploding in the oven but also helps them bake evenly. Meanwhile, it causes the shells to open like flower petals—which looks terrific and makes peeling easy.

Always cut on the bottom, discolored part.
Always cut on the bottom, discolored part. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Spread nuts on a rimmed sheet pan and bake 35-40 minutes. Don’t let dark shells fool you into taking them out too early. Chestnuts are done when the meat is tender, like a waxy boiled potato, when you insert the tip of a knife blade into the exposed flesh. Break one nut open and sample it—the meat should look opaque rather than translucent, and it should feel starchy in your mouth, not at all crunchy. Enclose nuts in a tortilla container (or wrap them in a thick towel) and set aside for 8-10 minutes.

Shell immediately for use in a recipe—or serve immediately for guests to peel and nibble.

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Tell us about your triumphs and travails with chestnuts, in the comments.

Automagic Holiday Menu Maker!
Automagic Holiday Menu Maker!

Tags: chestnuts, knife skills