A hickory nut is a nut from a tree in the Carya genus, which encompasses almost 20 species, most of which are native to North America. The nuts have long been used as a source of food, and the trees have also been bred to produce specific economically viable hybrids. It can be difficult to find true hickory nuts for sale, as the trees are not ideally suited to widespread commercial cultivation. When they are available, the nuts vary in quality, shape, and size, depending on the species.
The hickory tree is in the walnut family, and the trees do look like walnuts at a glance. They are densely branched, with pinnately compound leaves. The leaves are very mildly serrated, and trees produce catkins in the spring. Some of these catkins will mature into hickory nuts if they are properly fertilized. Like other nuts in the walnut family, the hickory nut is hard shelled and covered in a woody outer layer. The trees are also cultivated for their highly commercially useful wood, which is often used in smoking and furniture making.
One popular hickory nut hybrid is the pecan, a widely cultivated nut with a rich flavor and a high fat content. Some varieties of hickory nut strongly resemble pecans, with the same ovoid shells and lightly ridged nuts. Others look more like hazelnuts or filberts, in almost spherical shells which produce smoothly textured nuts. Hickory nuts tend to have relatively high levels of fat, making them an excellent food source for wild animals.
Humans are also fond of some species of hickory nut, as the nuts are often quite flavorful. Native Americans have harvested and used the nuts for centuries, and early explorers were quickly introduced to them, along with an assortment of other New World foods. The nuts can be eaten out of hand as a snack or integrated into dishes such as stuffings and desserts.
Like other nuts, hickory nuts can be stored for several months in a cool dry place as long as they are handled and harvested properly. It is important to avoid exposing stored nuts to excessive moisture, heat, and light, as the nuts can rot or the fats in the nuts can go rancid, resulting in a very unpleasant flavor. Hickory nuts intended for storage can either be shelled or left whole, depending on personal taste. Whole nuts tend to retain moisture and flavor better, although they can be a nuisance to store and deal with since they require more space.