Hickory- The King of Nuts

Hickory is the king of nuts. Most of you have never tasted one. Many may not even know what they are.  If you have never tasted a Hickory nut, you have missed out on one of the great undeveloped treasures  of the North American food world.

We are going to stick mainly to Shagbark and Shellbark Hickories. We will mention some of the other species later but first,  Lets talk about the best eating nuts in America.

Shagbark Hickory- Carya ovata and Shellbark Hickory- Carya laciniosa are the best known hickories for their eating quality. They both have a well deserved reputation for being hard to shell but improved selections do exist that shell out nearly as well as pecans. The shells are hard, yes, but the more difficult part of shelling wild nuts is the internal architecture of the nuts. The shells of wild nuts have deep ridges that intrude into the nutmeats entrapping them so that the must be broken into pieces to remove them from the shells. Depending on the tree, this can be quite the job to get enough to use for a recipe.

Improved selections exist that have a smoother interior architecture which allows the kernels to be removed in mostly halves with a few quarters. These trees are not easy to find but are well worth the search for hickory fans.

Once removed, the kernel have a rich buttery flavor similar to a pecan (their cousin) but bolder, not a strong flavor just a lot of flavor. The nuts have a high oil content that give a good “mouth feel”. These nuts are rich and nutritious. Shelled nuts can be used anywhere you would use other nuts. Pies, cakes, cookies, Ice Cream, as a savory addition to meats and stews. The uses are endless.

The high oil content means storage is important. Did you know Pecans should be in the refrigerated section of the grocery store? Hickory nuts are best stored refrigerated or frozen. Shelled, frozen if kept over a week. In shell, if kept over a month. Native Americans would toast the nuts in the shell to keep them fresh for long term storage.

Have nuts and not a fan of cracking and shelling for hours? Still want to enjoy the nuts somehow? Native Americans would roughly crack the nuts and boil/simmer them shells and all to make nut “milk” . This process extracts the oils and fats from the nuts into a broth that when strained can be used in soups, stews and many other recipes where a flavored liquid  is needed.

So how do you tell what kind of Hickory Nuts you have? There are many species and unfortunately they are rather promiscuous. Shagbarks and Shellbarks are classic shaggy barked hickories. They have large plates of bark that hang away from the tree in a most unmistakable way. Between the two, Shagbarks have compound leaves with  5 leaflets. Shellbarks have compound leaves with 7 leaflets.

The other species are variable in their culinary qualities. Many are quite good but all can be difficult to shell. There are Bitternut Hickories (not very tasty), Pignut (pretty good), Mockernut (you will know how it god its name after shelling a couple), Red Hickory {sweet Bitternut this is pretty good but uncommon), Black Hickories, Water Hickories and of course Pecans. Learning all these different kinds of Hickories is a challenge. The bark can vary from region to region, the leaflet numbers and leaflet shapes are pretty indicative. The buds are the best identifier.

Wild Hickories grow slowly and mature slowly. They are true sages of the forest. Some that are not really what would be considered huge trees are really ancient forest trees. Squirrels a-, Chipmunks and Field Mice eat most of the nuts so it is best to watch the trees closely if you want to get your share.