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Where Do Pine Nuts Come From?

A photo collage of pine nuts and a pine nut tree.

Pine nuts are an expensive ingredient, something you may have noticed if you’ve experimented with a lot of different recipes. This may make them seem like an exotic ingredient or one of those cool, trendy new foods that everyone starts freaking out about. But the truth is, pine nuts have been around for thousands of years. The story of where pine nuts come from, and why they cost so much money, is probably different from everything you think about these interesting nuts.

Where are Pine Nuts From?

When you see how much pine nuts cost at the grocery store, it may shock you to know that you can actually plant your own tree and harvest pine nuts right from the pine cones on the tree. That’s because there’s one simple answer to the question of where pine nuts come from in the U.S.

A cluster of pine cones up in the tree.

Pine nuts come from pinyon pine trees, which are native to the U.S. However, there are other pine trees that produce edible nuts, such as the stone pine and the Korean pine. Pinyon trees grow in the southwest U.S. in the wild. Pinyon pine trees are in the pinus plant genus that all pine trees belong to, including the pine trees that also produce edible pine seeds, including European pine nuts and the Chinese pine nut tree.

Pine nut trees are ready to be harvested in the late summer or early fall. The nuts come from the pine cones that grow on the pine tree. Pine nuts are the smallest nuts and they are easy for animals to eat out of the cones once the cones have opened. That’s why you want to look for unopened cones when you’re harvesting pine nuts. Cones that have opened have already dropped their nuts, which were likely very quickly eaten by any birds nearby. Birds love pine seeds, along with many other animals.

A bunch of pine cones in a wooden tray.

To harvest pine cones for their nuts, you want to twist the cones off the branches while avoiding the sap of the tree. The sap won’t hurt you in any way but it is very hard to clean off skin. Place all the cones in a cloth bag. Close the bag and leave it in a warm, dry, sunny spot. The cones will open up on their own, releasing the delicious pine nuts within.

If you leave the bag in the sun for a few days, no more than a week, you can give the bag a strong shake several times. This will shake the pine nuts out of the cones. You can then open the bag, remove the cones, give each one a shake to release the seeds, and toss them.

It’s easy to remove pine nutshells by hand. The nuts themselves are slightly sweet in taste and very flavorful.

Other edible pine nut trees grow in Europe and Asia. People have been eating pine nuts since at least as early as the Stone Age. During the Iron Age, Roman soldiers carried pine nuts with them as a food source while they were invading Britain. Ancient Greek authors wrote about eating pine nuts as early as 300 B.C.E. People have been eating pine nuts for thousands of years. And back in those days, they weren’t a super expensive purchase because they can be harvested right off the trees.

There are about 20 species of pines that produce edible nuts. The most commonly harvested of these are the Mexican pinion and the Colorado pinion in the U.S. and the Italian stone pine and the Chinese nut pine elsewhere in the world. That’s a lot of trees producing pine nuts. So why do these tree nuts cost so much when you buy them at the store?

Why are Pine Nuts So Expensive?

An ounce of pine nuts costs about three times as much as an ounce of almonds. That’s a huge price difference. What makes these nuts so much more expensive than others?

Pine nuts are slow to grow. It takes 15 to 25 years for trees to start producing seeds and it takes a few years more for these trees to reach peak production. It takes pine cones about 18 months to mature and produce edible pine nuts. This is a long process that makes pine nuts harder to come by than the nut-producing trees that have shorter cycles.

A close look at a wooden spoon filled with pine nuts.

The seeds are most commonly harvested by hand, not by machine processes, which makes them a very labor-intensive nut. Pine nut harvesting is a lengthy process that takes days because the cones have to open up to release the nuts.

Another reason pine nuts are so expensive? The demand keeps going up. Demand for pine nuts has steadily increased and in recent years, it has absolutely soared. China is currently the world’s biggest producer of pine nuts. That means these nuts have a long, long way to go to the U.S., which adds more cost.

What is Pine Nut Mouth?

It sounds like someone who can’t stop talking about pine nuts, but pine nut mouth, also called pine mouth, is actually a real thing that is really kind of crummy. Pine nut mouth causes everything you eat, literally everything you eat, to have a bitter taste that’s almost metallic. This can actually last a couple of days, a very unpleasant experience.

Pine nut mouth isn’t even a side effect of having a pine nut allergy. This is something that can happen to anyone after eating pine nuts…which is actually super weird. However, many people risk this affliction because the taste of a fresh pine nut is really delicious.

A close look at some roasted pine nuts with a wooden spoon.

Even raw pine nuts have a delicious flavor. They have a soft texture and a somewhat buttery taste. If you toast them slightly, you can add a little crunch and bring out that buttery flavor even more. Toasted pine nuts are a nice treat that can be added to other snacks, used as a salad topping, or eaten alone. When toasted, pinyon pine nuts have a great crunchy texture.

Pine Nuts Nutrition

Pine nuts are a bit of a superfood because they’re packed with nutrients. These nuts are loaded with vitamins and minerals and they’re chock full of healthy monosaturated fatty acids and healthy fats that help reduce cholesterol levels and improve overall heart health.

These nuts are pretty high in calories, however. About 100 grams of dry pine nuts is over 670 calories. That’s because pine nuts are rich in fatty acids. Pine nuts are also naturally gluten-free.

Pine nuts are not toxic to dogs the way some other nuts are, but they aren’t good for your canine friends, either. Because pine nuts are high in fat they aren’t a good snack for dogs. You don’t have to worry if your pup eats some pine nuts but you don’t want to make a habit of feeding these nuts to them.

How to Keep Pine Nuts Fresh

Like any other food, pine nuts can go bad. You don’t want your pine nuts to go rancid because after all, they are expensive. The best way to store pine nuts is to keep them in a cool, dark place. You can tuck them in a cabinet where they won’t be close to heat and preserve them but they will last even longer in the freezer. This will keep your pine nuts good for months. Pine nuts have a high oil content so they will spoil in just one to three months.

Eating Pine Nuts

A squirrel eating a pine cone on a tree.

You may have already eaten pine nuts and didn’t know it because these nuts are the main ingredient in pesto. One of the most common ways to eat pine nuts is by toasting them. It’s easy to toast pine nuts in a frying pan. Add a little olive oil and use low heat on the nuts, stirring and shaking them in the skillet, until they turn slightly brown. You can add a little salt if you like, as well.

Pine nut allergy is not as common as more standard nut allergies, but it can happen. Before you give anyone something you’ve made with pine nuts, be sure to ask if they have any allergies to them first.

Pine nuts are tasty and healthy and they’ve been around for thousands of years…even though they’re pretty costly for something that comes out of a pine cone. If you get the chance to play around with pine nuts in a recipe or just as a toasted treat, you’ll find that these nuts are truly delicious and packed with flavor. You may even decide that these sweet, buttery, nutritious nuts are truly worth every penny. However, you can save yourself some money if you grow your own pine nut tree to harvest your own American pine nuts.