When it comes to do-it-all ingredients, nuts are long-standing MVPs. Between 1970 and 2016, Americans’ annual nut consumption increased from 1.38 pounds per person to 3.69. Beyond simple snacking occasions, they can be prepared in dozens of formats, from flours and oils to nut butters and alternative milks. True nuts technically originate from trees though legumes like peanuts and seeds like pepitas and sunflower seeds are often lumped with the rest, given that they bring a similar nutrition profile and can be prepared in many of the same ways.
Although nuts are a common food allergen, they are also one of the few ingredients included in just about every specialty diet; paleo and keto adherents are just as likely to chow down on nuts as pescetarians and vegans. As interest in plant-based alternatives rises, nuts become even more integral to menus, giving restaurants the opportunity to wow guests with more elevated and creative options.
Of all the tree nuts, almonds are perhaps the biggest cash cow for the U.S. Between August 2019 and July 2020, some 1.8 billion pounds, representing $4.7 billion, were exported across the globe, with India and Spain being the biggest purchasers. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Thanks to classic sweets like pecan pie, pecansare most often associated with the American Southeast—but that doesn’t mean they’re primarily grown stateside. Of the major nut varieties, pecans are the largest import, both in terms of volume ($189 million) and price ($631 million), with 99.5 percent sourced from Mexico. (USDA)
Macadamia nuts are among the priciest varieties in the nut category. In recent years, imports have hovered around $8 per pound, while others like hazelnuts, almonds, and walnuts typically fall under $4 per pound. (USDA)
Dating back to 7,000 BCE, walnuts are the oldest of all tree nuts. They are also one of the more affordable options, with unit prices for imports and exports hovering just under $2. The walnut also helps California live up to its “land of fruits and nuts” reputation; the state produces 99 percent of the commercial U.S. supply and three-quarters of world trade. (USDA / California Walnuts)
Because of their versatile nature, nuts open a new world of menu possibilities. Within the broader category, specific varieties can be best suited for certain applications based on their flavor, texture, density, and more.
Cashews Sometimes referred to as a “vegan’s secret weapon,” cashews have a soft, creamy texture, making them an ideal dairy substitute. Chefs will use this nut in sauces, spreads, soups, and even cheese alternatives.
Walnuts The deep nutty flavor of walnuts lends itself well to meat alternatives. When properly seasoned and prepared, walnuts become integral ingredients in plant-based burgers, taco meat, and more.
Almonds More than other nuts, almonds grind into a fine powder that, while not a substitute for classic flour, can work well for baking sweet dishes or coating meat.
Pistachios In the U.S., pistachios are one of the more international nuts, often appearing in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, from pistachio ice cream (pictured) to couscous to baklava to rice pilaf.
(Buyers Edge Platform / Truly Good Foods)
Rose Mary | Chicago
The Italian-meets-Croatian cuisine of chef Joe Flamm’s new restaurant, Rose Mary, shines through in the Coal-Roasted Beets. Calling on classic Mediterranean ingredients, it features kajmak (a creamy Croatian cheese) and honey, with seasoned pistachios bringing a nutty crunch.
Nordstrom Café Bistro | Multiple Locations
Cashews take a global turn in the Crispy Duck Salad at Nordstrom Café Bistro. Spiced with turmeric, curry powder, salt, and pepper, the cashews add a pop of flavor to the dish, which also features duck confit, green cabbage, arugula, green California grapes, and shallots.
Satellite | Santa Barbara, California
At Satellite in Santa Barbara, California, executive chef Emma West leans into walnuts’ inherent meatiness by blending them with cauliflower for a plant-based chorizo. The vegan dish is served alongside refried lentils, cilantro cashew cheese, and Napa cabbage.