Pecans are the product of the hickory tree, also known as Carya illinoinensis. The trees are native to Central and Southern North America, and were utilized as a food source by Native Americans for centuries before the arrival of European colonists. The plants were not actually domesticated until the 17th century, when the first plantations of pecans were established in Mexico. The nuts have a distinctive rich, buttery flavor which often appears in Southern desserts such as praline and pecan pie. Pecans are also used in a variety of savory foods.
The trees can live and produce nuts for hundreds of years, if they are in a favorably temperate climate and they are well cared for. Many venerable pecan orchards have been continuously producing nuts through several generations of cultivation. The trees are deciduous, dropping their leaves in the winter to conserve energy and putting out fresh growth in the spring. Pecans are in the Juglandaceae family along with walnuts, and the leaves of the two trees look very similar, appearing in pinnately compound simple rows on the branch.
The pecans appear in the fall. The shells are oblong in shape, yielding ovoid nuts with a very high fat content. The high fat content of pecans causes them to go rancid very easily, so care must be taken in handling pecans to make sure that they stay edible. After harvesting, pecans can be left whole in their shells or shelled using a vacuum pressure unit. The nuts are packaged for sale, ground into pecan butter, or pressed to make pecan oil.
When selecting whole pecans in the shell, look for shells without signs of cracks or holes. When shaken, the nuts should not rattle, as this suggests that they are dessicated. Shelled pecans should look plump, with no signs of shriveling or wrinkling. The nuts should be stored in a cool dry place until use, or frozen if consumers are not sure when they are going to use them.
In savory dishes, pecans can lend a burst of rich, buttery flavor. Some cooks like to candy pecans and sprinkle them on salads or pastas, especially in combination with rich cheeses like Gorgonzola and blue cheese. The pecan also has a long history as a dessert nut, and appears in candies, pies, and cakes. Many Southern cooks are happy to share pecan recipes with people who ask for them.