Everyone knows the beloved holiday lyrics about chestnuts roasting and popping over a fire, but our guess is that not many folks out there have ever actually eaten a chestnut, roasted or otherwise. This is understandable, given that chestnuts, once a staple agricultural product across the eastern United States, are now a rare delicacy thanks to a disease which relegated the American Chestnut tree to virtual extinction during the last century. However, though rare and relatively expensive, chestnuts can still be found for sale in some grocery stores, especially around the Christmas and New Years holidays. (This writer paid about $10 for his 1 lb. bag, which contained around three dozen chestnuts.)
Chestnuts are large tree nuts which have a deliciously sweet flavor. Though they can be eaten and enjoyed raw, the enhanced flavor, texture, and aroma that comes with roasting them is prized for good reason! Methods vary from oven roasting on a pan or in a dutch oven over open flame. We chose to roast ours in a long-handled basket (the same kind that can also be used for popping popcorn) over an open fire. The steps we used are provided below if you want to try and recreate the sumptuous results for yourself!
1. Rinse the chestnuts in water.
2. Score chestnuts.
After the chestnuts have been dried thoroughly, score the out skin on one side with an x-shaped incision. Chestnuts typically have a flat surface on one side and a more rounded surface on the other. Lay each chestnut with its flat side down on a cutting board. Using a sharp paring knife, carefully cut on x-shaped incision on the rounded surface of each chestnut. Make sure the cut is deep enough to pierce all the way through the outer shell. No harm will be done if the incision goes partly into the nut itself. Scoring the skin in this manner allows steam to escape during roasting without causing the chestnut to explode (which, despite all the romance associated with the popping, is actually quite a messy business).
3. Soak in salt water.
After scoring, put all the chestnuts into a large pot, fill with warm water, and allow to soak for at least 45 minutes prior to roasting. (The writer allowed his to soak for almost two hours.) Adding a generous amount of salt to the water is recommended (stirring it in as you go), as the salt will provide a nice counterbalance to the natural sweetness of the chestnuts.
4. Prepare fire.
Build a fire sufficiently large for the job, but allow it to burn down somewhat before roasting so that it provides more coals than flame.
5. Roast chestnuts for 10–20 minutes
When roasting, keep the chestnuts out of open flame in order to avoid burning. Give the basket a good shake every now and then in order to shuffle the chestnuts around as they are exposed to the heat. After 7–8 minutes, take one or two out of the basket for inspection and taste-testing while the others continue to roast. Continue doing so every 5 minutes or so. This writer found that 20 minutes over the hot coals was just about right.
6. Empty chestnuts onto a baking pan, peel, eat, and enjoy!
After emptying, allow the chestnuts to cool just enough to handle, but peel away the outer shell and eat them while still hot (or at least warm) for maximum enjoyment.
A 1 lb. bag of chestnuts with roasting basket.
Chestnuts arranged on a cutting board.
Scoring chestnuts with a paring knife.
Soaking chestnuts in water.
More coals; less flame.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Roasted chestnuts on a baking pan.
Roasted and peeled chestnut.