Most years we roast and peel a batch of chestnuts for stuffing at Thanksgiving and sometimes for Christmas, too. They’re hard to prepare but for a holiday meal we’ve got to fuss over something, right? Sometimes we do buy peeled, cooked chestnuts from Trader Joe’s, which has sold both frozen and shelf-stable kinds. I haven’t found any yet that I like as much as fresh chestnuts, though.
Some years ago one of my sons gave me an arcane gift that’s become essential to our chestnut preparation ritual: a chestnut knife. It’s been useful not only at Thanksgiving but at Halloween, when the boys use it for carving their pumpkins. For the chestnuts, use the knife to score each one with an X on the flat side until they all look like this:
If you have a chestnut knife it will take about half an hour to carve X’s in a pound of fresh chestnuts. With a paring knife count on at least 45 minutes and be really careful, those chestnut skins are tough. Note that this step is not optional. You won’t be able to get the shells off the chestnuts without scoring them beforehand, and if left intact they could blow up in the oven.
We’ve tried a variety of methods for preparing the chestnuts: boiling, baking, microwaving. They all work, but we’ve settled on baking the chestnuts at 400 degrees for fifteen to twenty minutes. Whatever the cooking method, peeling the chestnuts takes some time, and we’ve made sitting together to peel chestnuts one of our holiday traditions.
Here are the chestnuts after baking:
Once the chestnuts are baked you’ll need to work fast to remove both the outer shell and the inner membrane. The membrane comes off much more easily when the chestnuts are hot, so start peeling them as soon as you can stand to handle them. This is where I recruit my family, so we can get the majority of the chestnuts peeled before they cool off and the inner skins start to really stick to the chestnut meat. With three people we can get a pound done in twenty minutes. Ten minutes would be ideal.
We’ve tried various ways to keep the chestnuts hot to make peeling easier. Keeping them in hot water works, but the steam makes them really too hot to handle. This year I tried throwing a microwaved damp towel over them after ten minutes. Really, the best thing for us so far is just working together to get the job done quickly. Some of the thin inner membranes come right off, others need to be picked off bit by bit. I have a theory that the fresher the chestnuts are, the easier to remove the inner membrane, but it hasn’t been proven yet. This year I bought the chestnuts before Thanksgiving but didn’t use them until Christmas, keeping them stored in the fridge for a month. Almost all of the chestnuts were still good but most of the membranes needed to be picked off.
Here they are cooked and peeled, ready for our chestnut stuffing (recipe next year!). I like to imagine that the chestnut stuffing recipe goes all the way back to the days before the chestnut blight when the mighty American chestnut was still a keystone species of the Eastern forest. For now, the only chestnuts I can buy are imported European ones, but I hope that changes within my lifetime: after efforts since the 1930′s, horticulturalists are close to releasing a disease-resistant tree that is as close as possible to the almost lost American chestnut, and I’m sure that small farmers will be eager to plant and grow them.