Pine nuts are a bit of an imposter in the nut world, in that they’re not technically nuts. They are actually seeds, because a nut is strictly a pod with a hard shell containing a plant’s fruit and seed together.
Although they’re not botanically classified as nuts, people think of them as such, which is also true for various other ‘nuts’ that are available to buy. In fact, only a few nuts that we regularly buy and eat can be considered true nuts: hazelnuts and chestnuts are two examples.
Pine nuts are more expensive to buy than other foods that are commonly described as nuts. There are many reasons for this discrepancy in price, which can be traced right back to the planting of the pine nut tree.
Here, we will take you through some of these reasons, so you can learn more about the process of growing pine nuts and understand why they have a higher price tag next time you visit the grocery store.
Simply put, growing a pine tree to a state where it is ready to yield pine nuts takes a long time. It will be roughly 15-25 years before a tree of this sort will start bearing seeds once it has been planted.
This contrasts with 3 years for cashew trees and pecan trees, 5 years for walnut trees, and just 4-5 months for peanut plants. Most nut trees fall within the 3-5 year window from first planting to harvest, which means they become useful at least 3 times quicker than pine nut trees.
The variable window for pine trees is also a factor – with most nut trees, the difference between when some of the same plants yield nuts and when others do is at most a year.
With pine nut trees, however, the window of 15-25 years represents a possible 10 year gap during which some pine trees will have matured and others won’t have.
This is a long time and means it is very difficult to plan your harvesting schedule; you could be waiting 25 years for the first yield.
Even once the trees have started bearing nuts, the first ones will not be the highest quality or quantity that they will reach. In fact, it could take them around 3 times as long again until they are producing a bountiful harvest.
Often, farmers have to turn to wild pine trees that haven’t been cultivated, rather than growing their own from scratch, and most of the total pine nut yield in North America is collected this way.
Not only does it take a lot of time for the trees to reach maturation, there is also a labor intensive harvesting process once they get there.
Unlike other nuts, pine nuts generally have to be plucked by hand from the tree. Pine nuts grow inside pine cones, and are ready before the cones start to open naturally.
This means that it is difficult to remove the seeds at that point, so the cones are usually left to dry in the sun to make them easier to smash. Even the drying process takes 20 days, adding to the overall time scale that is needed.
Smashing the cones gives you access to the seeds they hold, but you still have to pick out the individual seeds by hand. Then, you must remove each seed’s second shell before it can be eaten.
These shells vary in thickness, and the thicker ones present more of an obstacle to detach than the thinner ones. As you can see, it’s not just a simple matter of being able to eat pine nuts straight from the tree, and there are a lot of stages that have to be completed to make them edible.
Teaching pickers to retrieve the pine cones is a slow process as well, as it requires specialist techniques.
They must use ladders to get to the top, rather than just climbing the trees, because the way branches are set out makes them impossible to scale by hand. Therefore, the equipment and training costs are also higher.
Supply and Demand
Due partly to the fact that pine trees require a long time to grow, there are not many pine orchards specifically dedicated to producing pine nuts, because the farmers’ efforts are better focused on other crops.
A large portion of the pine nuts eaten in the US have been grown elsewhere, particularly China, and exporting them into the country contributes heavily to the overall cost of buying them.
Even pine nuts that don’t originate from China are likely to be transported there first for processing, which means they are effectively exported twice and the consumers take on the bill.
You may think that most people wouldn’t bother with pine nuts at all, given how much money they have to shell out for them. In reality, there is a large demand for pine nuts in the USA, and they are a core ingredient in a number of different food products.
Pine nuts are what give pesto its signature crunch, for example, and they would certainly be missed if they suddenly weren’t included.
Other uses for pine nuts include certain confectionery items, salads, baked goods and even oil, since this can be extracted in a similar way to other nut oils.
The gentle nutty flavor and crisp texture of pine nuts make them irresistible to many people, and they are also relatively healthy for the body.
The small seeds known as pine nuts are surprisingly difficult to obtain, both in the initial growing of the trees and the actual gathering of the nuts once mature.
The most significant factor that drives up the price of pine nuts is the length of time the entire process takes, because it is so much longer than the majority of nut crops, which also means that the trees are not frequently cultivated and producers have to rely on wild-grown trees.
It is also not possible to save on the associated costs or cut corners in any way. Pine nuts have a unique flavor that can’t be successfully substituted with other nut types, so it is generally worth paying the premium if you have a specific craving.