How To Roast Chestnuts

I’ve no less than a dozen things I want to share and write about. On that list includes some new natural living recipes (homemade cough syrup, cough drops, DIY furniture cleaner, kitchen & bath scrub, and room freshener—the laundry soap is still in the testing phase).

I’ve also been torn about sharing my recipes for homemade vanilla & devil’s food cake mixes because, truthfully, all too often my recipes are “borrowed” by other blogs & websites (read: reprinted without permission), and while I shrug it off most of the times, these homemade cake mixes feel revolutionary. They were vigorously tested, and can be made traditionally (with gluten, dairy & eggs), gluten-free, dairy-free, and even vegan. I even perfected using the mix to make mug cakes in the microwave. 60 seconds to divine chocolate cake? Yes, please!

I’ve been considering an e-book with the base mix recipes, and recipes to use making them. Does anyone have thoughts about this? I’d love to know how many of you actually use e-books. I must confess to preferring paper copies of cookbooks so I can write notes in them.

Now onto the real business at hand, for today’s post, at least. Somewhere between the hot humid days of summer, and the now barely 40ºF temperatures we’re experiencing, fall graced us with its presence for a few seconds. And during that time, I managed to beat the squirrels, chipmunks, deer, raccoons, bears, and heaven nows what other wildlife inhabits my property, to a nice stock of chestnuts from the tree in the backyard.

After more than two decades of cooking with them, I finally cracked the code on how to roast chestnuts perfectly. Every time.

I didn’t grow up eating chestnuts, even though they’re a beloved ingredient in Italian cooking. I do have fond memories, though, of my aunt roasting a mix of walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, and filberts to serve between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving. Side note: it was only in my 20s that I realized filberts were just another name for hazelnuts. Please tell me I’m not alone in this; I still feel stupid admitting it, although this Serious Eats article eases my feelings of ignorance to the fact.

Unlike all those other nuts where roasting simply involves putting them on a pan, and baking until toasty, chestnuts require two extra steps.

First, you need to score them. This simply means cutting an “X” into the shell. Of course simply is objective here. Without a sharp paring knife the task is anything but simple (you can also buy a special tool for scoring them, but I’m not one for gadgets that aren’t multi-function).

Once the chestnuts are scored, the next step is an absolute must. The scored chestnuts need to soak in water. The soaking period allows the shells to fill up with water. The water in turn produces a steaming effect when the chestnuts roast, forcing the shells to burst away from the nut.

Many recipes and tips I’ve encountered throughout my cooking life call for a brief soak, 30 minutes or so. That’s how I’d been roasting chestnuts since I met Michael, which is also when chestnuts became a apart of my cooking life (they’re an ingredient in his Thanksgiving stuffing recipe).

The problem with such a brief soak is it doesn’t allow enough water to penetrate, so while it helps loosen the shells, it still makes for a finger-numbing experience trying to peel them.

With this in mind, I wondered what would happen if I left the scored chestnuts to soak longer, much longer. I left them in a bowl for more than an hour, but less than two (I can’t remember exactly how long). After draining the water, I spread them single layer on a sheet pan, and roasted them in a preheated 325ºF oven for 30 to 40 minutes.

I immediately noticed the shells had burst open better. Once cool enough to handle, 90% of the chestnuts peeled perfectly, surrendering both the shell, and that papery film. 90% was good, but after these stunning results, I set my sites on 100% shelled chestnut perfection.

On my next harvest, I decided to score the chestnuts and soak them overnight. Yes, a good eight hours! When I woke the next morning, I turned the oven 325ºF, puttered about washing my face, brushing my teeth, and grinding coffee beans while I waited for the oven to heat up. The drained chestnuts went onto a sheet pan, and this time I roasted them close to an hour, figuring the extra hydration might require more time in the oven to ensure they roasted properly. Let me say, the scent of chestnuts roasting at 6:00am is a lovely.

100% success was mine. Every single chestnut released from its shell with nary a bit of papery film attached.

Even better? the shells practically fell off, so no red fingertips from peeling them. A word of advice, don’t try to rush this, and crank the oven up hotter. A nice, slow roast is imperative to ensure the chestnuts dry thoroughly, or else you’ll end up with soggy nuts (insert grade school humor here). If you’ve access to a firepit or grill, you can also cook them in a cast iron skillet over the flame. In that case, a shorter cook time is fine, and would probably only take about 30 minutes (be sure to shake the pan every so often so they cook evenly).

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  • DamselflyDiary

    I am so excited to try this! For the past two years I have tried to roast chestnuts and they have come out hard as rocks. Inedible. I scoured the Internet looking for a solution but nothing helpful. This year, I am going to try soaking them overnight. I am so hopeful.

    I had never eaten chestnuts until three years ago when a friend made some and I fell in love. But that love quickly turned to scorn when I couldn’t cook them properly myself.

    It has been suggested that perhaps the chestnuts I was using were too old and dried out. Fair point. I can’t control how long Whole Foods has had them before selling them to me. Nothing I can do about it. But soaking them overnight would moisten them up again.

    Thanks Jennie!

    P.S. I do not like ebooks either. I print recipes and write on them using a rating system and my substitutions (gluten free and other). In cookbooks, I usually use sticky notes to do the same.

  • Barbara Gilbert

    I’ve lived in 10 different states over 52 years of marriage, and I’ve never seen a chestnut to buy, nor tasted one. I’ve lived in New England, the deep south, the southwest, the heartland, and the Pacific Northwest, as well as the far north Midwest. Nary a nut was ever seen; where on earth do you get them?

  • Jennie

    Barbara, they’re usually only available in the fall, right around this time of year during the harvest season. I commonly find them in the produce aisle, especially around Thanksgiving, as they’re a popular stuffing ingredient. Hope that helps. -Jennie

  • Joyce

    I grew up eating chestnuts but have never been successful when cooking them and I try every year. I will definitely will be trying this very soon as I have chestnuts in my fridge now. One question do you soak them at room temp or in the fridge. I don’t like ebooks either. Thank you for all your help and Happy Thanksgiving

  • Jennie

    Hi Joyce. I soak them at room temperature. I don’t see any harm if you want to keep them in the fridge, though. -Jennie

  • RobynB

    After you peel them, then what??? I have a stash of fresh chestnuts that we harvested a couple weeks ago in our refrigerator, I’ve been trying cooking them various ways but when I do successfully get them out of the shell I’m not sure what to do with them, other than just eat them as we peel them… do you season them and just put them out, do you use them in recipes, what do you do with them? I will definitely be trying your method of cooking them! So far all the other methods I’ve tried have been iffy at best.

  • Jennie

    Hi Robyn. I would tuck those chestnuts in the freezer. I just had throw away a whole bag that I shelled because I discovered mold. They were in the fridge bin for a month or so. So sad. As for using the chestnuts, I use them in my Thanksgiving stuffing, and you can swap them into recipes calling for walnuts or pecans. -Jennie