No excuse for stale hazelnuts in Oregon

As you may know, Oregon produces 99.9 percent of the domestic hazelnut crop. This year's harvest is finally in, which means it's time to gather the bounty and head into the kitchen.

So what should you consider when obtaining a supply of new-crop Oregon hazelnuts?

Well, my favorite apple variety is Fuji, Comice pears make me swoon and pinot noir, of course, is my preferred beverage alongside a grilled chinook. But hazelnut varieties? Do we have a choice?

Not usually. Perhaps the day will come when we're as finicky about the variety of hazelnuts we buy as we are about our apples, pears and wine. But for now, most of us are pretty much at the mercy of the suppliers. And frankly, most of us simply don't know enough to ask what type of hazelnut we're buying. But at Hazelnut Hill, on Highway 99-W between Corvallis and Monroe, Rob and Sally Hilles are educating their customers.

Within the hazelnut industry, their business is referred to as vertically integrated. They do everything themselves. They manage a hazelnut nursery, grow the trees and process the nuts all the way to value-added end products. These products, which they sell through mail order and their on-site store, range from dry-roasted hazelnuts, through flavored nuts, to a variety of confections that incorporate chocolate, toffee and ice cream. For more information, go to their website,

In their store, they have arranged a display where visitors can sample different hazelnut varieties side by side and observe subtle differences in size, taste and color.

Currently, they're growing varieties named Lewis, Clark, Yamhill and Tonda di Giffoni. Each one has a distinct characteristic that makes it slightly more appropriate for a given end product. It's been a learning process, said Sally Hilles.

"We began making hazelnut products from traditional in-shell varieties, which we found were not particularly well-suited for what we wanted to do. We need kernels to match the end result, whether that's chocolate-covered, dry-roasted or buttered."

So what do they look for in kernel quality? "Depending on the end use," she said, "we look at oil content, blanchability (that's industry speak for a nut's ability to shed its skin readily after roasting), shape/size and breakage."

Oil content creates the flavor, she explained. The Lewis, for example, "has such excellent flavor and high oil content that it is the one we prefer for simply dry-roasting." The Clark's outer skin has high blanchability, so it's their choice for pairing with chocolatey confections, in which skinned nuts are preferred.

As for future varieties, states Rob Hilles, "We still have orchards to plant and will do so with the eye toward end use."

They're intrigued with the varieties — Lewis, Clark, Yamhill, Sacajawea and Jefferson — that Oregon State plant breeder Shawn Mehlenbacher has released. While working the Lewis and the Clark into their product line, "our customers were able to distinguish the difference, and that encourages us to continue our search for superior kernel varieties," says Hilles.

SELECTING: The 2011 crop is finally in the market, so there's no excuse for using stale hazelnuts this time of year. For cooking, I prefer to buy shelled, whole, raw hazelnut kernels in the bulk-food sections of grocery stores where I can evaluate their quality up close. They'll have a rich, sweet and nutty aroma. So when you begin to scoop the nuts from the bin, pay attention. If they don't seem fresh to you, let someone in the store know about it so they can replenish the bin. Nobody in the hazelnut industry wants you cooking with less-than-perfect Oregon hazelnuts. You just don't have to when there are so many high-quality ones available.

STORING: Unshelled hazelnuts have the longest shelf life. They also look darned pretty in a bowl on the kitchen table. On the other hand, shelled nuts are far more convenient to work with and take up less room. I like to keep both raw (shelled) and roasted kernels — prepped in various ways and in closed containers in the pantry — so when I crave a nut hit, they're ready to go. They're stable for at least a couple of months this way. If you intend to squirrel away large quantities of hazelnuts, keep in mind that exposure to air, light, warmth and moisture will hasten rancidity. That makes freezing the best course. Properly packed, frozen, raw hazelnuts can have a shelf life of up to 24 months. Any treatment applied prior to freezing will reduce longevity. Roasted, whole hazelnuts tend to stay fresh in the freezer for at least 18 months; roasted and chopped, around 12 months.

ROASTING: This is simple stuff, roasting hazelnuts. There is no absolute right way to do it. The pendulum swings from "low and slow" all the way over to "high and fast." I tend to go for the middle range: 350 F. At this temperature, you have quite a bit of control over the outcome. A medium roast only takes about 15 to 20 minutes. At higher temperatures, things move a bit quicker, and it's easy to overshoot your desired end point.

When you begin to smell the delicious, toasty aroma, it's time to start checking the roasting progress. The longer you roast hazelnuts, the richer their flavor. You have to decide how deep of a roast you want based on how you're planning on using them. For instance, I prefer a dark roast when combining hazelnuts with all things chocolate. It just seems to produce a more elegant flavor experience.

SKINNING — THE LILY METHOD: All you really need to know is that giving your roasted hazelnuts a vigorous shaking in a plastic container is a far better method for removing skins than the traditional towel-rubbing approach. Just place your nuts in a sturdy, translucent, half-gallon or so plastic container with a secure lid. An oblong shape is best so you can create good velocity during shaking. Put your nuts in, replace the lid, then shake vigorously for about 45 seconds. Once the nuts have been shaken and you can see the flaked-off skins whirling around with the nuts, tumble them out onto a large baking sheet, head outdoors to your lawn or garden and simply blow away the skins. I call it the Lily Method because it was my 6-year-old granddaughter, Lily, who suggested just shaking roasted kernels in a plastic box. Thank you Lily!

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at

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