Credit: Stock image / Pexels

If your only experience with hazelnuts has been limited to Nutella spread and fancy chocolates, you’re missing out. Hazelnuts are scrumptious, creamy nuts used in a variety of dishes, from decadent desserts to nutty sauces.

“They do bring a wonderful flavor to things,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “Hazelnuts work admirably well in savory applications as well as sweet applications. They’re really a unique and cool nut.”

Hazelnuts are also healthy, rich in vitamins, minerals and healthy natural fats.

“They are a really good source of magnesium and copper and several other things — potassium, vitamin B6, folic acid,” said Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College. “It’s [also one of the nuts that’s] the highest in fat, which some people are off-put by, but that’s why they’re so creamy.”

But while hazelnuts are a versatile and tasty ingredient, they can be tricky to use in a home kitchen. There is some variation in the way hazelnuts are sold in the grocery store, from shelled and unprocessed to completely stripped and roasted.

“[They can come] shelled or unshelled, peeled or unpeeled, whole or ground, plain roasted or salted,” Enjaian said.

read more about hazelnuts

Enjaian recommended avoiding hazelnuts that have shells, which will be dark brown and round. They are difficult to work with if you don’t have the right tools, like a nutcracker. Even if you do, Dumas said, the process can be messy and challenging.

“Anybody that’s going to shell nuts by hand, be prepared for a significant amount of work if you don’t have the appropriate tools,” Dumas said. “You end up with a shell and broken nut meat everywhere. There’s some engineering that went into making [shelling] and hulling equipment. It’s hard to replicate that process at home.”

If you opt for hazelnuts that have already had their shells removed, they will likely still have a flaky, papery skin on them that needs to be removed before using them as an ingredient in whatever recipe you have chosen.

Enjaian recommended roasting the hazelnuts before removing the skins. Do so carefully, though, as Dumas said “the difference between perfectly toasted and burnt [nuts] is less than 60 seconds.”

“If you’re going to toast any nut, you stay right next to the oven,” Enjaian said. “Don’t leave the side of the oven [and] take them off the pan immediately [when they] get just a little bit deeper brown. Most of the time, most of the peel will come off that way. If you don’t roast them, it will be hard.”

There are some instances in which you might not want your hazelnuts to be roasted before you use them, though — for example, Dumas said, if you are going to be baking them for a long time in a recipe, or if the instructions call specifically for raw hazelnuts. In that case, you can winnow them using a fine mesh strainer or an old window screen, much in the way that many Mainers remove the papery husks from their foraged fiddleheads.

“You would put the nuts in the strainer, use a dry kitchen towel and rub back and forth over the screen,” Dumas said. “That little bit of abrasion from the screen, skins come off fairly easy from that.”

If you are feeling inspired and plan to go shopping for hazelnuts, Enjaian also recommended buying it in bulk.

“Hazelnuts can be really expensive unless you buy them somewhere that sells them in bulk,” Enjaian said. “You can get them per pound so much cheaper.”

read more about hazelnuts

If you purchase nuts from the snack section, Dumas also noted that they are probably already roasted, so you shouldn’t roast them again.

Another thing you have to keep in mind is that nuts go rancid fairly quickly and to make sure you check the date on any nuts you are purchasing from the grocery store.

“If you get inspired [and] dig [hazelnuts] out of the back of the pantry, they’re probably rancid,” Dumas said. “They should have a fairly neutral smell with no bitter or off kind of smells coming off of them. A run of the mill grocery store [doesn’t] always have great turnover with those things, especially in the baking section. I like to buy at the bulk bin at local coops [which are] designed for product rotation.”

Enjaian said that she stores her hazelnuts in the freezer if needs to keep them for a long time.

“I’ve had quite a few go rancid before,” Enjaian said.

Once you have hazelnuts prepared, though, you can use them in a variety of ways. Dumas said that he makes a savory roasted red pepper and hazelnut dip that is a hit on appetizer boards. Enjaian recommended taking a page from Nutella and turning them into a dessert.

“There’s quite a few French desserts where basically a hazelnut paste can be used the same way as almond paste butter, but it’s a totally different flavor profile,” she said.