Foraging for pine nuts

What do chipmunks, squirrels and humans have in common in the fall? We are all getting ready for winter and we have a mutual love of pine nuts. From September to mid-November pine nuts fall from the pine trees and are readily available to forage. While our furry friends stash their winter sustenance in autumn, most of us pay $40 to $50 a pound for the sweet nut.


See Priya’s recipe for Roasting pine nuts

The pine nut was a staple of Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes for thousands of years. They spent the fall harvesting the nuts and storing them for the long winter ahead. They pounded the nuts from their spiky cones and roasted them to prevent their sweet, oily meat from getting rancid. They also pounded the nuts into flour and used for it gruel, soup or biscuits.

“The seeds can be found in between the layers of the cone, as well — that is if the squirrels haven’t beaten you to it.”

In the Pine Nut Mountains of Nevada, the single-leaf Pinyon (or Piñon) Pine resides, the official tree of the state. This pine yields a multitude of pine nuts. In Tahoe, it is the Jeffrey Pine that drops a smaller variety of the edible pine nut.

Coreen Francis works for the Bureau of Land Management and coordinates commercial pine nut harvesting for Nevada. She explains that the pine nut crop depends on the weather from two springs prior to the fall harvest. It takes the cone two years to develop. Since we had precipitation in the spring of 2015, she said that this fall’s crop looks to be excellent and predicts 2017 to be a good year for pine nuts, as well. Francis says that the nuts from the Pinyon Pine are the largest and most delicious.

According to Francis, the best way to get at them is to crack them open with your teeth. There are commercial machines that do the work, but for a local forager it’s a bit more challenging to get to the heart of the nut. There are many suggested ways of getting to the meat: use a rolling pin or pound the nuts with the end of a glass jar, a small mallet or hammer. Just be careful not to smash the kernels.

During the autumn months the nuts are scattered all over, especially under the trees. Look for the darker colored ones, because the lighter-colored ones tend to be hollow. The seeds can be found in between the layers of the cone, as well — that is if the squirrels haven’t beaten you to it.

Roasting pine nuts
Once you’ve collected the nuts, lay the nuts out parchment paper. Fill a vessel half-full with cold water. Place the nuts in the water. Discard the nuts that float because they are either hollow or have begun to get hard. The good ones sink to the bottom. Those are the ones you want.

Dry roasting pine nuts are one way to eat them. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Lay out the nuts on a foiled baking tray in a single layer. Season them with salt and bake the nuts for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Pesto is one of the most well known uses for pine nuts and you need at least a quarter cup of nuts. Toasting pine nuts and adding them to a salad adds a wonderful nuttiness to your greens. Or, how about adding them to a cookie recipe? The tasty pine nut is a complete protein, delicious and fun to forage for.

Happy harvesting.

Learn more about harvesting pine nuts
Watch archival footage of native peoples harvesting pine nuts