National Walnut Day was created in 1949 by the Walnut Marketing Board to encourage Americans to eat more walnuts. Walnuts are a very versatile nut and can be used in baking, cooking and plant-based milks!
The walnut tree has a rich history with people. Walnuts have been cultivated and consumed by humans for thousands of years, dating back to 7,000 BCE, and have been recognized for their health benefits since then. Today, three quarters of the global supply are produced in California.
Though we call them “English” walnuts, in actuality they are native to Persia. Walnuts were traded along the silk road and eventually brought to the Americas by English merchant marines. Another varietal, the black walnut, developed differently in the Americas. These are not grown and sold commercially, due to their pungent flavor. A few recipes call for black walnuts, but the more popular variety is the English. It is sweeter and more mild.
- The sapling is planted.
- It takes up to seven years for the tree to mature. Then it can start to be harvested annually.
- Though they are on different harvest schedules, walnuts are harvested very similar to almonds. As they mature, the husk splits and the walnut dries. Then, mechanical shakers go to each tree and shake the walnuts to the ground. They are then swept into rows, picked up and taken away for processing!
- The next step involves de-husking, and air drying the nut to a low moisture level (this is necessary to prevent mold, mildew, food-borne illness and rancidity). They are then stored in cool chambers until they are ready to be cracked.
- Because walnuts have such a soft kernel, cracking them is a very delicate process. There tends to be a number of steps including machines of different types, mechanical cracking lines, shaking screens, air blowers and suction systems. Processors are inventing and implementing new technology every year to improve quality and efficiency.
- Walnuts are sorted by color and size. Darker walnuts are less expensive, while lighter walnuts are more expensive because of their pleasant aesthetic. Ferris carries a combination of light and dark. There is not a significant taste difference when it comes to color, and both actually grow on the same tree. The darker color comes from more exposure to the sun, therefore the walnuts on the top of the trees tend to be darker.
To learn about walnut processing in more detail, the California Walnut Board is a great resource.
Taste and Common Uses
Walnuts are naturally sweet, nutty, fatty and have a measure of tannins that can complement sweet things wonderfully. According to The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, the best food pairings for walnuts are apples, honey, prunes, sugar, sharp and mild cheeses, brandy, sweet dry wine, whiskey, coffee and many other fruits and spices. Historically, walnuts are common to bake with and are a wonderful addition to breads, cookies and muffins.
Walnuts are an incredible source of ALA or alpha-linolenic acid (plant-based omega 3 fatty acids). Omega-3s are not created naturally in the body, so we need to consume them in our food. According to the Harvard School of Public Health,
“[Omega 3s] are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function.”
This translates to heart health, cancer prevention, reduced inflammation and cognition improvement. Walnuts are one of the only tree nuts that serve as a high source of polyunsaturated fats. This healthy type of fat can assist in reducing cholesterol levels.