Chestnuts roasting on an open fire is a common longed-for Christmas tradition, as immortalized in "The Christmas Song" sung by Mel Torme. Caution must be taken because for the uninitiated, roasting chestnuts can become a dangerous endeavor, resulting in hundreds of injuries annually. Those wanting to try their hand at roasting chestnuts should be certain to choose the best possible specimens for roasting, since the process can be relatively labor intensive. Large chestnuts which feel heavy for their size and have no visible mold spots should be chosen since these will have the most nut meat in them, and the larger size will make it easier to prepare them for roasting in the oven or over an open fire.
To prepare a batch of chestnuts for roasting, start an open fire or preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C). Hold each nut in a thick towel to prevent slippage, and using either a chestnut knife or a sharp paring knife, carefully cut an "X" into the shell of the nut. Chestnuts are made of between 40 and 60 percent water which turns to steam during cooking. The "X" cut into the shell will allow steam to escape and prevent explosions.
Put the nuts into a baking pan or wrap them in foil and place in the oven or 5 inches (12.7 cm) from the fire. Roasting chestnuts should take 15 to 20 minutes, or until the nuts are tender. Remove from the heat and wrap them in a towel for five minutes. This step traps steam in the towel which will help to remove the skins of the nut inside the shell. Squeezing the nuts in the towel will also help.
While the nuts are still hot, the shells should be removed and the inner skin peeled off. The skin becomes difficult to pull off if the nuts cool, so the peeling will need to be done quickly. The chestnuts can also be rewarmed to make the peeling process easier.
Once finished with the process of roasting chestnuts, the nut meats can be used in a variety of dishes. The most popular in the United States are in holiday stuffing recipes, but they are used frequently in all areas of European cooking, especially in French and Italian cuisine. Of course, the roasted chestnuts can be enjoyed alone.
Roasting chestnuts is most popular in the regions where the tree proliferates. Most chestnuts today are grown from European (Castanea stavia) or Asian varietals of the tree. The American chestnut tree, Castnea dentata, once grew everywhere in the Eastern United States, especially along the Appalachians, but in 1904, a blight was brought into the country which almost completely destroyed the population.
The tradition of roasting chestnuts dates back to the 16th century in Rome where street vendors sold them to passersby. Today, roasted chestnuts are still sold by vendors in Europe and at some special Christmas events in the United States.