I needed peeled chestnuts for a batch of pickled chestnuts I wanted to make. So I needed them whole, as opposed to a tin of chestnut purée; you don’t pickle chestnut gloop. I know you can buy peeled chestnuts canned in brine, but I wanted to do my own pickling. And with the advent of November, the green grocers’ display stands on the sidewalks were beguiling, offering mesh bags of chestnuts between the Brussels sprouts, the cabbages and the bunches of kale, good fall fare all of them that any cook should be able to tackle. Huh.
For me, there are two take-aways from this comparison of make versus buy peeled chestnuts.
- In the future I will be going with the ready-to-use pre-peeled version of chestnuts. For the small savings, it’s not worth it to do it myself, and I loathed the chore. It was in no way interesting, fun, or rewarding. And my fingers were black and blue;
- If you want to peel your own chestnuts from scratch for use in a recipe, I can’t advise strongly enough to prep the chestnuts a day or two before, and store in the fridge in a tightly-sealed plastic bag. The reason is that after you have finished prepping a batch of chestnuts, you will be in no shape to keep on cooking after that — you will be exhausted and staggering with arms outstretched for the liquor cabinet.
I had cooked chestnuts a few times in the distant past, but it was a long time ago, long enough I guess for me to have blotted the trauma from my mind. It’s all come flooding back now, as friends helped me remember that I’d passed the roasted chestnuts to them at parties and got them to peel them while I cannily found something else to do.
In any event, fast forward to fall 2014. The Internet is full of the prolonged and mournful cries of people begging for an easy way to peel chestnuts. Several people pointed to pressure cooking them as the no-fail way for easy-peel chestnuts. They said the pressurized steam just made the skins and shells slip right off. Being a recent and still enthusiastic pressure-cooking convert, I had those puppies in the pressure cooker before you could say Jack Robinson.
Above is the “cheat” picture of the pressure cooked results. 27-ish relatively intact pieces of chestnut. But they’re not that great — patches of bitter inner skin are still on them. And largish chunks constitute only about 1/4 ( 250 g / 8 oz) of the 1 kg (2 pounds) of raw chestnuts I started with. And the process took about 2 hours all in, during which I hated my life and was screaming inside with frustration.
Above is a far more honest picture of the results, showing some of the discards. Tons of chestnut meat wasted because it was stuck in, and would only shatter upon being picked out, and I was fed up with the whole business. The shards of thin inner skin (which must come off because while edible, it is so bitter that you don’t want to eat it) show that the skin did not just magically come away with the outer shell, as the pressure cooking promises had me believe. I had to pry off the shell, and then take a paring knife and cut off the skin on each and every one. And I hate peeling anything with a passion to begin with: peeling is one of those thankless jobs that, if you’ve done it right, no one knows you did it. Get it wrong and you never hear the end of it.
So, out of 1 kg (2 pounds) of pressure cooked chestnuts, I ended up with 500 g (1 pound) of shell like that pictured above: that was about half ( 250 g / 8 oz) of relatively intact pieces, and around half (250 g / 8 oz) of small shards which I was too embarrassed to photograph.
And, here we go again…..less than one week later
So, that should have been enough to mark as “lesson learned”, right? Vague memories of a horrible process from the distant past, reinforced by recent experience to go “nope, you weren’t imagining it, it’s a miserable task.” You’d think, huh?
I chatted with people about it on Facebook, and they all suggested buying the chestnuts ready peeled. And I guess Google picked up on my recent searches on the topic, because I got a recommendation to watch a chestnut peeling video on Youtube. The video was “Peeling chestnuts, not fingers”, by Philip Rutter. It seemed so simple in his video that I decided to give peeling chestnuts one more go.
In Mr Rutter’s method you chop the chestnuts in half, parboil them for about 3 minutes, then use a pair of pliers to easily pop the chestnut meat out free of shell and inner skin in a trice.
Here is his video above, if you want to watch it.
I decided at the same time that I would do a cost comparison with buying already-peeled chestnuts. So I got both. I bought from a store with very high turnover of their produce.
In the comments on the video, I saw some people saying that it didn’t work for them, with Mr Rutter replying that it could have been because the chestnuts were dry, and might have benefited from soaking overnight first, so I decided ahead of time to head that concern off at the pass and soak them overnight.
So with the soaking overnight done the next step was to cut them in half. This was easy work with a French knife.
I gotta admit, one advantage of this method leaps out during this part: you see right away the bad chestnuts, so you know not to waste another second on them.
I know this is a yucky picture, but I think it’s important people know that you will get bad chestnuts and this is what they can look like.
So, I parboiled the halved chestnuts for three minutes. (In the video, on his woodstove, it shows the water taking a longer time to return to the boil after the chestnuts are added. On my super induction burner, the water never stopped boiling when I added a few handfuls of chestnuts, so I couldn’t immediately remove them — I went with three minutes as I had seen that suggested elsewhere.) I only did a few at a time, removing them with a slotted spoon, so that I’d be able to work with them hot, as everyone says forget about even trying to peel chestnuts when they are cold.
After a bit of experimenting I found a large pair of needle-nose pliers that was able to get around the chestnut, and I found out that you don’t squeeze in the middle to pop them out, as that just mashes them — instead, you squeeze at the very end to pop them out.
Except they didn’t pop out. I’d say they were reluctantly forced out, extruded out. A whole lot of inner skin came with the nutmeat, and a whole lot of nutmeat stayed behind in the shell. Man, this sucks.
Some quick Googling on the computer. Some people suggest soaking first (I’d done that.) A New York times article suggested boiling longer. Okay, so went back to the kitchen and I tried that, but I didn’t want to go so long that they all crumbled. I tried varying lengths of time. But the results were all the same, like this:
You see all that wasted nutmeat still in the shells? And all that nasty, bitter inner skin that is going to have to be painstakingly peeled off with a paring knife?
Yep. A “hate your life moment” combined with a “kick yourself” moment for being right back in this situation not even a week later.
To try to dig out and salvage more of the pricey nut meat, I even resorted to some good old fashioned nut tools — ESPECIALLY the nut pickers. I spent a lot of time digging chestnut out. At first anyway. Until I had to admit that the good ship Caring had tooted its horn and left the dock.
So this is the sorry mess I ended up with in the photo above, once again. It won’t win any Internet food beauty contests, that’s for sure. Maybe there’s a prize for honesty, lol?
In any event, time to weigh them to see what the bottom line result was, so that I could factor costs into my final thinking about all this.
Time to haul out my old weigh scale. Hey, I know it won’t win any prizes, either, for high-tech, but it’s great on batteries, and gravity never lies, eh?
Ugh. Really not ending up with very much here at all.
That’s 625 grams out of the 1.15 kg (22 oz out of 2.52 lbs) that I started with. So a 40% loss in product. Yeah, I know a good deal of that is inevitable as it’s shell and inner skin, but still, you can see all the nutmeat in the shell husks that I just gave up trying to save because even if I got it out, it wouldn’t be fit for the purpose I needed it for, anyway. I suppose I could have dug it out anyway and froze it for use in a turkey stuffing, but frankly I was fed up at this point.
So that was my second recent attempt at peeling chestnuts and you saw my results.
Let’s do the math now.
I started with 1.15 kg (2.53 lb) of raw in shell and ended up with 625 g (22 oz) of peeled. I paid $7.53 for that, so the price per 25 g / 1 oz of peeled end product was 30 cents.
My time spent on this was 2 hours.
Do it yourself prices of peeled chestnut, at $2.99 a pound raw in shell:
- price per 100g peeled chestnut = 1.20
- price per kg peeled chestnut = 12.00
- per per 1/4 pound peeled chestnut = 1.36
- per per pound peeled chestnut = 5.44
Already peeled chestnut prices:
The packet price is $2.49 for 150 g, so the price per 25 g / 1 oz was 42 cents.
- price per 100 peeled chestnut = 1.68
- price per kg peeled chestnut= 16.80
- price per 1/4 pound peeled chestnut= 1.88
- price per pound peeled chestnut= 7.52
So, to buy chestnuts already peeled and ready to use is about 4 bucks more a kilo (2 bucks more a pound.)
A 150 g ( 5ish oz) bag gives 1 cup of peeled chestnuts, that will fit in a 250 ml / 1/2 US print preserving jar.
Other factors in comparing peeled chestnut prices
- The prices will of course vary where you live, and by time of the year;
- The chestnuts I bought were $2.99 a lb (450 g) with no declared origin. A grocery store next door to that had chestnuts with a declared origin of Italy for $4.99 a pound. So I actually bought cheaper whole chestnuts, and it’s probably a reasonable guess that they may be from China;
- The packaged already-peeled chestnuts were marked as being from China, so I think I was comparing like-with-like as far as country of origin goes;
- I know many people these days choose not to buy Chinese food products, so you could try pricing European already-peeled chestnuts with European whole chestnuts.
- It could be that European chestnuts peel far easier than Chinese chestnuts; if so, I’d love to know.
My conclusions about peeled chestnuts
If someone tells me that I worked with the wrong chestnut, and that other varieties of chestnuts peel easily, I might be willing to try peeling chestnuts one last time. Until then, they are now firmly in the same thankless, “life is too short” task category as preparing artichokes and peeling mushrooms.
Even though the already-peeled chestnuts do cost a bit more, for the time savings, and the much better (more intact and better looking) chestnut that you have to work with, I will go with the already peeled from now on. Chestnuts (well, all nuts, really, these days) are a luxury item anyway, so I might as well enjoy them than resent them. And yes, I’m sorry that someone else is peeling them for me for so little extra money per hour, I do hope it isn’t actually a person and that instead it’s a machine that does it somehow.
Now, it could also just be that some people are born with the knack of peeling chestnuts — in the same way that some people (not me) are born with the knack of making a perfect boiled egg effortlessly — and some people are not. So if you’re one of the ones who peels chestnuts effortlessly, then I suggest we divvy up kitchen chores based on our skills: you peel the chestnuts, and I’ll go off to hunt for a pair of very large wine glasses so that we can discuss all this properly.
Douglas Williams says
Good article, Randal. I admire your perseverance. Years ago, I discovered DRIED, peeled chestnuts in a large chinese grocer. Re-constituted, they seemed fine (I used them in a stuffing). They’re a bit floury and mealy even when cooked fresh, and although I won’t vouch for them 100% (my tastes have been considerably refined since then), I’m going to give them another try.
Jeremy Ingle says
for chestnut stuffing peeled roasted chestnuts are a no brainer.
peeling your own is a really awful job and it very dfficult to get the inner skin off
Aurora is a good organ Canadian brand
Awesome article! Thanks. I had just decided tonight while standing in the kitchen trying to extract the chestnuts, that this is my last year. I just asked my partner to REMIND ME NEXT YEAR TO BUY THEM. Reading this reinforced my decision!
I was Googling for an article or video on how pre-peeled chestnuts are so perfectly peeled, and found your efforts. I am guessing that the factory also turns out imperfect peeled chestnuts that are rejected, but I would still like to know how they are peeled. By hand seems inefficient, but I can’t imagine machines peeling them so nicely.
My mother once told me that the bagged, pre-peeled chestnuts (usually Made in China) are actually not roasted, but boiled. But they are good to eat anyway.
I remember almost 40 years ago, my family went on a trip to Japan, and to this day I still remember us buying bags of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor. They were handed to us in paper bags PRINTED WITH DRAWINGS on how to use your thumbnail to crack the middle of the flat side of the chestnuts (they were small in size), press the chestnut from the top and bottom to crack it open, and pop out the perfect little kernels! That trip germinated in me a love of all things Japanese. I mean, the fact that they printed on their bags such a predictable manner of cracking open their chestnuts, wow. The Japanese must have cultivated these special chestnuts, they are good at things like developing square watermelons that stack better for transport and growing beautiful produce in a uniform manner. I would love to return to Japan one day and find me some of those magic chestnuts. 🙂