Roasted chestnuts

Though the idea of chestnuts roasting on an open fire sounds appealing, many people have no idea how to do it—and wonder whether these holiday treats are tasty and nutritious enough to be worth all the work involved in preparing them.

Nutrition-wise, chestnuts have some major differences from almonds, walnuts, and other nuts, but they’re still worth cracking open.

And chestnuts get accolades for their versatility in the kitchen. “They can be used in sweet and savory applications, or just eaten on their own,” says Barbara Kamp, M.S., R.D.N., assistant professor of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University.


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Chestnut Nutrition

“Chestnuts have much more water and very little fat compared to other nuts,” says Liz Applegate, Ph.D., distinguished senior lecturer emerita in the Department of Nutrition at University of California Davis. They also have less protein.

Chestnuts are mostly carbohydrates. Because carbohydrates have fewer calories per gram than fat—4 calories vs. 9 calories—chestnuts are far lower in calories than other nuts. A half cup of chestnuts has 175 calories compared with 414 calories for a half cup of almonds.

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The downside of not having all of that fat, however, is that chestnuts don’t provide the same cardiovascular benefits that other tree nuts do, due to their high levels of healthy poly- and/or monounsaturated fats.

Still, they do offer solid nutrition for their relatively few calories. A half-cup of chestnuts provides an adult woman with:

• Almost half of her daily need for the mineral manganese, which is important for cell function and bone health, and helps the body process carbohydrates.
• 40 percent of her required copper, a mineral that helps the body form red blood cells.
• 25 percent of her daily vitamin C.
• 3.6 grams of fiber; about 13 percent of what’s needed daily.
• 12 percent of her heart-healthy folate for the day.
• 10 percent of daily potassium, which is important for controlling blood pressure. 

Preparing Chestnuts

The first stop for any fresh chestnuts you bring home is the refrigerator. “They’re very perishable,” Applegate says.

Cooking them before you eat them, though not required, is strongly recommended, says Applegate. “It makes the starch more digestible.”

The best cooking method depends on how you plan to use them, Kamp says. For snacks and salads, you want to keep the chestnuts dry, so roasting is her pick.

Start by using a knife to carefully score an “X” on both the flat and domed side of the chestnut. You can roast them over an open fire, but it might be easier in an oven or toaster oven (see two of CR's top performers, below). Place on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes at 375° F. Turn and roast for an additional 10 minutes.

For use in soups or purées, score them and then place them in a pot of water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

In both methods, the nuts are ready when the X's pop open, revealing the nut flesh. Remove the hard outer shell as well as the thin inner membrane before eating or using in a recipe.

To save time, Kamp approves of the steamed and roasted chestnuts available vacuum-sealed in glass jars and foil pouches. They won’t taste as good as freshly prepared chestnuts, she says. “But for using in recipes, they work great.” However, watch out for the prepared chestnut jams and spreads you’ll see in specialty stores: They're pretty sugary—15 grams in 2 tablespoons, the same as in a heaping tablespoon of table sugar. 

How to Use Them

“Any way you would use nuts, you could use chestnuts,” Applegate says. They have a nutty, sweet flavor, and a slightly mealy, crumbly texture.

For hearty meals, chestnuts work well as an addition to bread-based stuffing because their richness makes a good complement to the savory herbal notes typically used, Kamp says.

You can also add them to roasted Brussels sprouts and other vegetable side dishes. Chopped roasted chestnuts make a standout topping for Greek yogurt, paired with a drizzle of honey and a few dried cherries, Applegate says. And they’ll add creaminess to soups made with squash, parsnips, and other fall and winter flavors.


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