During our recent visit to the Dane County Farmers' Market in Madison, Wis., we encountered an ingredient that's seldom seen at stores or outside of the eastern and midwestern states. Hickory nuts are an autumn treat, similar to the pecan but smaller in size and very rich and sweet in flavor.
Audrey Biersach of Hickory Nut Heaven and her husband Robert started foraging for wild hickory nuts in retirement. Throughout the fall, they crack, sort, and clean the nuts for sale at the Dane County Farmers' Market.
There are about a dozen species of hickory trees native to North America and additional species in Asia, but only some of them bear nuts that are palatable. Shagbark and shellbark hickory nuts are considered the best. (Pecans are actually a variety of hickory nut.) They are rarely sold commercially because the trees are difficult to cultivate and the shells are hard to crack. People – and squirrels! – in the know look for these sweet nuts in the wild, at farmers' markets, or from specialty sellers.
Due the rarity of the nuts, people we spoke to recommended using them as garnish, such as on top of a cake or salad. Hickory nuts can also be used as pecans or walnuts in most recipes. The cracked shells can be used for smoking or grilling.
Have you ever eaten hickory nuts? Do you forage or do you have a good source for buying them?
• Carya Nutt., hickory (USDA Plants Profile)
• Carya Fruits (hickory nuts) (Bioimages)
• Shagbark Hickory Nut (Local Harvest)
• Hickory Nuts: The "Inside" Story (Mother Earth News), with advice for cracking and roasting the nuts
Related: Look! Red Walnuts
(Image: Emily Ho)