It’s the holiday season and there is one burning question yet to be answered. No, not how does Santa fly around the world in one night. Rather, how is one to choose the perfect pecan?
In addition to buying Mississippi pecans in the shell or already shelled, cooks find a dizzying array of nut sizes, colors, varieties and prices.
“When consumers are buying pecans, they should ask if the pecans are from the current year’s crop to ensure freshness,” said Max Draughn, owner of Pecan Hill Farms in Raymond. “The oil in pecans oxidizes, and the flavor and quality of the pecan deteriorates over time.”
Draughn said pecan kernels should be a golden color to a light brown.
“Dark kernels show that the kernels are old or have been stored improperly,” he said. “Shelled pecans are good for about three months at room temperature. They will keep about two years frozen. Frozen pecan kernels won’t lose flavor.”
“We suggest that you refrigerate even the pecans that you are going to use in the near future to keep them at their peak flavor,” he said.
If the pecans are in the shell, dark shells indicate the pecans are old.
“Shells should be brown in color, not close to black,” Draughn said. “Consumers should ask to sample the in-shell nut to see what the inside looks and tastes like. Always remember that dark shells and dark kernels usually equal poor quality.”
Draughn said he would like to see consumers shop for pecans by variety, the way they shop for apples or other fruit. Forkert pecans, for example, are thin shelled and can be cracked easily.
“You can crack them just by rolling them between the palms of your hands,” he said. “The flavor tends to be crisp but smooth, with the flavor we expect a pecan to have. They’re great for eating right out of the shell, they’re large, and they rarely disappoint.”
Because different pecan varieties have different flavors, their intended purpose is important. Draughn said consumers should ask about varieties based on what they want to do with the pecans.
“Elliot pecans are small in size but large in flavor,” Draughn said. “The high oil content imparts a very rich, nutty flavor. They’re great for eating fresh but may be at their best for cooking. They’re the perfect size for pecan pies.”
Small pecans are often the best choice for cooking because they do not have to be chopped and usually cost less. The flavor is as good as the large varieties, if not better.
“Size has no impact on flavor. If people are buying in-shell pecans from a retailer or grower, they should sample the different varieties and buy what they like, no matter the size,” he said.
Fortunately for pecan lovers, the popular nut has some health benefits.
“In moderation, they’re an excellent snack option,” said Brent Fountain, nutrition specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “They provide protein. Pecans are low in carbohydrates, but still a good source of dietary fiber. Nuts are high in fat, but pecans especially are high in the good kinds of fat.”
Only 10 percent of the fat in pecans is saturated, and pecans are cholesterol free.
“Because of the high fat content, nuts are high in calories,” Fountain said. “However, because of the high fat content, pecans can help you feel fuller faster. If you are feeling hungry but are not ready for a full meal, nuts are a good bridge — better than a candy bar, which contains roughly the same number of calories.”
A serving size of pecans is 1 ounce or about 19 pecan halves. That is about as many as will fit in the palm of an adult’s hand.