There's little more festive than roasting foraged chestnuts, but they're not just for Christmas. Try them in stews, pasta dishes, puddings and more.
We have the Romans to thank for Britain's abundance of Sweet Chestnut trees – they highly rated chestnuts as a cookery ingredient and rightly so. These beautiful, shiny nuts are wonderfully versatile and, in spite of what the name may suggest, they are equally at home in sweet or savoury dishes.
For those who enjoy gathering their food from the wild, you can find them throughout autumn. A good technique for freeing the nuts from their sharp-needled shells is to use your foot (with shoe!) to 'press and roll' over the nuts and they should pop out easily.
Where to buy them
The chestnut season is brief, but whole peeled chestnuts, either canned or vacuum-packed, are available from major supermarkets. Dried chestnuts are also available from health food stores, but must be soaked in water overnight then simmered before use. 450g fresh chestnuts (weighed in their shells) are equivalent to 175g dried, reconstituted chestnuts, or 350g tinned or vacuum-packed nuts. Canned chestnut purée, plain or sweetened, is a godsend as it saves hours of preparation. You can make an unusual (but very easy) ice cream by stirring together whipping cream, icing sugar and a tin of sweetened chestnut purée.
How to cook chestnuts
Fresh chestnuts must always be cooked before use and are never eaten raw, owing to their tannic acid content.
You need to remove the chestnuts from their skins by either boiling or roasting them. For both options, first make a small incision in the skin or you'll have a house full of chestnut shrapnel as they will explode. If cooking over an open fire, keep one whole as when this explodes you know the others are done (not a method for the overly house proud!).
Once cooked, peel off the tough shell and the papery thin skin underneath. Peel the nuts whilst hot (it's impossible to peel a cold chestnut!) to ensure the complete removal of the inner brown furry skin, called the 'tan', which is bitter.
Read our guide for more information on how to roast chestnuts.
In savoury dishes, chestnuts are the epitome of earthy rustic cooking. Use them in warming soups, like chestnut & cauliflower soup, stews such as our venison sausage & chestnut casserole or as a purée instead of mashed potato.
Chestnuts are also a very welcome accompaniment to a roast dinner. There is the traditional chestnut, bacon & cranberry stuffing, or for an impressive centerpiece, serve the stuffing in a roll, wrapped in flavourful bacon rashers. If you're short on space in the oven, this other chestnut stuffing roll is conveniently designed to be slipped in alongside a roasting tin. Chestnuts can also be cooked whole alongside meat, as with our roast guinea fowl dish and they're a very good friend to your Christmas sprouts. For a vegetarian alternative, you can team chestnuts with parsnips in this modern take on a nut loaf or serve them in a stunning savoury cake packed with butternut squash and lentils.
These tasty nuggets are not only suitable for festive occasions, but make a welcome addition to hearty rice and pasta dishes which you can whip up for a midweek family meal, such as this healthy roasted squash, pancetta & chestnut risotto or Italian sausage & chestnut pasta.
The texture of the cooked nuts means they can be a very useful alternative to flour in desserts as they can be blitzed in a food processor into a fine crumb. Chocolate and chestnuts are a heavenly combination; the French celebrate this with bûche de Noël, a chocolate log filled with a chestnut purée served at Christmas. Mary Cadogan's chestnut truffle cake and our chocolate & chestnut truffle torte make satisfyingly silky and indulgent centerpieces for a festive gathering.
The Italians use chestnuts in Montebianco, where thick chestnut purée is topped with cream to replicate the mountain after which it is named. But for me the ultimate celebration of the chestnut is marrons glacés, in which the chestnuts are cooked in sugar syrup of increasing concentration, saturating the nut with sugar through a process similar to osmosis.
Chestnut flour, made from dried ground chestnuts, is worth seeking out from larger supermarkets, specialist food shops and delicatessens. The pale brown flour has an unusual but pleasant smoky flavour and is gluten-free and nutritious. You can use it as a thickener for soups and stews or to make tasty breads, pancakes, fritters and cakes such as our lemon, crème fraîche & chestnut cake. Chestnut flour doesn't keep well, but can be frozen, well wrapped, until needed.
Try these other delicious chestnut desserts:
How often do you include chestnuts in your cooking? Leave a comment below...