What Are Black Walnuts and How Are They Different from Regular Walnuts?
Black walnuts: Perhaps you grew up eating them and will swear by your grandmother's black walnut cake recipe. Or maybe you've never heard of them until… right this second. Or maybe you're like me and grew up seeing the front lawn littered with green-turned-black husks but had no idea that inside was an elusive but enticing nut with a starkly earthy flavor.
So, what's up with the boldly flavored black walnut? Learn more about how to find black walnuts (either in stores or in your own yard!), how they differ from more common English walnuts, and recipes that highlight this enigmatic ingredient.
What are black walnuts?
Black walnuts are a wild walnut native to North America and, unlike most nuts, aren't grown in orchards. Their hard-to-breach exterior gives new meaning to the phrase "tough nut to crack" (the resulting nut rarely comes out whole) and their taste evokes musky, bittersweet notes.
Related—How to Toast Nuts in the Oven
To contrast, English walnuts are the one you're used to seeing at the grocery store. These orchard-grown nuts have a thin, easy-to-crack shell and a mild, muted flavor. Fun fact: The English walnut originated in Iran (Persia) but got its common name from the English merchants who sold it around the world.
Where can you find black walnuts?
You may be asking, "So if they only grow wild… can I still buy them?" No need to worry, they're still available for purchase. Black walnuts aren't as prevalent in grocery stores as more common English walnuts, so check before you make the trip to the store.
Or buy them online through vendors like Amazon, nuts.com, or Hammons Products Company. In fact, Hammons is the world's largest processor and distributor of black walnuts in the world and does so out of their southwest Missouri facility. There they use black walnuts harvested from hundreds of buying stations across the country where the wild crop is hulled and bagged for processing.
Since they do grow wild across the country, you could try harvesting black walnuts on your own. It's not a task for the faint of heart: There's the hard-to-crack shell, the weeks of drying, the manual labor of gathering them all in the first place.
But like any foraging activity, the effort can be worth the reward—just ask Martha Stewart, as she recounts her walnut harvesting adventure here. The best time to harvest is from late September through October. Just don't forget your gloves (for protection from stains) or your nutcracker (for, well, cracking).
Once shelled, store them in the freezer and they'll last indefinitely.
How to bake and cook with black walnuts
When a recipe calls for walnuts, you can safely assume they mean English walnuts. You can easily swap them out for black walnuts; just use only a fraction of the suggested amount to keep the bold, slightly bitter flavor in check.
A classic place to start when cooking with black walnuts is cakes and baked goods. Start with a slice of spice cake, pie, or banana-chocolate-walnut bread, or make a batch of black walnut brittle to share with friends and family.
On the savory side, walnuts add additional crunch and flavor on top of salads, roasted veggie dishes, and pilafs. You could set aside the pine nuts and make a pesto with black walnuts—we like this version that's served with littleneck clams.
Use black walnut oil like you would truffle oil: brushed onto fish, mixed into vinaigrettes, or even added to baked goods for an boost of richness.
You've got quite the options for cooking with black walnuts—so go nuts!