What are Pine Nuts?

Mary McMahon

Pine nuts are the edible seeds of pine trees, found in the genus Pinus. These seeds have been used in the cuisines of Europe, North America, and Asia for thousands of years, since they are high in protein, dietary fiber, and flavor. Some traditional recipes call for these seeds, and they are often toasted to bring out their distinctive taste, which is, for lack of a better word, very nutty. Most markets carry pine nuts, although they can be an expensive specialty item, so consumers should shop around before buying them.

Flavorful pine nuts can be sprinkled atop a simple vegetarian pizza.
Flavorful pine nuts can be sprinkled atop a simple vegetarian pizza.

Trees in the Penaceae family, which includes pines, produce characteristic cones to reproduce. The hard and often spiky cone protects the tender seeds inside from predators until the cone cracks open, depositing the seeds on the ground. Many pinecones must be heated to crack, which is why pines flourish after a fire. Of the numerous species of pine tree, around 20 produce seeds that are large enough for humans to harvest.

Pasta with pesto sauce, topped with pine nuts.
Pasta with pesto sauce, topped with pine nuts.

In Europe, most people use pine nuts from the stone pine, an abundant species which produces large, plump, ivory colored seeds. The nuts are especially popular in Mediterranean countries, particularly Italy, where they are thrown on pizza, ground with sauces, and added to pasta dishes. Pine nuts are also eaten out of hand. Roadside stands in places like Sicily and Greece commonly offer toasted nuts twisted up in large paper cones for people who enjoy them straight.

Numerous Asian varieties of pine produce usable pine nuts, a popular ingredient in China and Korea, among other places. In the Americas, they are harvested from the pinyon pine, and they may be known as “pinyons” in a reference to the parent tree. The exact nutritional profile of these seeds varies, depending on the species, but they generally contain a high amount of protein, rich fat, and fiber. Some also offer additional vitamins and minerals.

To harvest pine nuts, producers must first crack the pine cones, typically with heat. The seeds themselves then need to be shelled. After shelling, they have a short shelf life, because of their high oil content. To keep them from going rancid, cooks should store them in the refrigerator or use them quickly. Unshelled pine nuts can be purchased in some parts of the world, and they are typically less expensive than shelled ones, since less labor was required to bring them to market.

Pine nuts are the seeds of pine trees.
Pine nuts are the seeds of pine trees.

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Discussion Comments


One thing that can be a good idea if you use a lot of pine nuts in your cooking (and you should; they're delicious!) is to buy a bunch of wholesale raw pine nuts.

It's not very hard to roast them by yourself at home, and sometimes you can even find them pre-shelled.

It usually ends up being cheaper to do it that way than to buy the teensy bags that most stores sell. Since pine nuts are kind of a luxury good -- at least where I live -- I always stock up on them wholesale and roast them myself.

I can't tell any difference in taste, and it saves me a ton of money.


I just found a great recipe for an Italian-style pizza that calls for pine nuts, but the only thing I can find around where I live is pine nut oil and Chinese pine nuts -- no Italian pine nuts.

Is it at all possible to substitute Chinese pine nuts for Italian pine nuts in a recipe, or does that not work?

If I can't use the Chinese pine nuts, then is there something that I can do with the pine nut oil to get the same taste in the recipe?

Do any of you cooking-savvy readers have any idea?


I had never tried pine nuts before I went on a trip to Italy, but once I got there I got totally addicted to them. I would buy some pine nuts in the morning before I went walking, and I even bought a little bag of them to carry along with me on some days.

Of course, when I got back to the US I bought some, and I still like them here, but the pinyon pine nuts I find here just aren't as good as the Italian pine nuts, at least in my opinion.

I know its probably one of those things that just depends on where you try it first, but I will still always keep my high opinion on Italian pine nuts -- and wait excitedly for the next time I go to Italy!


Not all pine nuts are hard to shell. The Great Basin soft shell is pretty easy,and worth the effort. Also, eating US pine nuts helps protect the forests in the Southwest. Often times those forests have been turned into pasture lands.

Penny Pine Nut

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