Pine nuts come from pine trees. Maybe that’s so basic that it goes without saying, but somehow I managed to grow to adulthood before I realized that simple fact. (Forgive me if I seem a little slow.) There are a couple dozen species of pine growing around the world that produce the edible pine seeds that we know as “pine nuts”.
When we were in California for Thanksgiving, Henry cut a bunch of gray pinecones (Pinus sabiniana aka digger pine, foothill pine, or bull pine) that contained edible pine nuts. Gray pines are native to dry foothills of Northern California and Southern Oregon, and they produce very large (6-10″) cones with individual scale tips that curve upward. The batch that Henry collected was particularly pitchy, so handling the cones made a giant mess.
In the wild, gray pinecones will often hang on the trees until wildfire sweeps through, scarifying the seeds and allowing them to regenerate the forest after a major disturbance, but squirrels love to cut them and eat the seeds, too, and traditionally they were also harvested for food by native tribes.
Henry’s main motive for collecting pinecones was to amass a seed collection to trade with Seven Oaks Native Nursery. Though gray pines not native to most of the wet Northwest, they will grow here, and they make nice ornamental trees. Seven Oaks Native Nursery will grow out the seed that Henry harvested and offer pine seedlings next fall.
To extract the seeds from gray pinecones, you must first let them dry out for a few days or weeks, so they will open up fully. When they’re dry, you can hold the cones upside down and shake or beat out a few of the seeds. To get the more embedded seeds out, use a knife or other sharp object to pick out individual nuts from the crevices behind the scales.
Each seed is encapsulated by a hard shell.
To crack the shell, put a single seed into the weird little notched section on a standard can opener, and squeeze it until it cracks.
The seed is inside (usually, though there will be some blanks). Cracking the nuts in this fashion will often break the seeds in half, so you’re going to have to crack a lot of nuts if you want a pile of perfectly intact seeds.
This process is pretty time consuming, so don’t attempt this if you’re not a patient person.
Gray pine nuts are not exactly the same as the Mediterranean pine nuts that are traditionally used in pesto, but they are similar enough that they can be used interchangeably. That said, I can’t imagine taking the time to shell enough of any kind of pine nut to do anything other than eat them on the spot or perhaps roast them for a little delectable snack. No wonder they cost a million dollars per pound at the store!