Pinyon Pine Nut Recipes

Desert Lil's Delicacies - A DesertUSA Food Feature

For millenia, the nutty taste of pine seeds has been enjoyed by many cultures throughout the world. Known variously as pine nuts, pinyon nuts or piñones, the prophet Hosea refers to them in the Old Testament, and their shells have been found in excavations of Greek and Roman ruins. They were included in the diet of ancient Mediterranean societies because of their supposed aphrodisiacal properties. Today, commercial gatherers harvest thousands of pounds of pinyon nuts each year for distribution to food stores and gourmet restaurants.

In the American Southwest, people, and many species of wildlife have used the seeds of the pinyon pine as a food source. In such arid, desert regions where wood is in short supply, the pinyon pine has also been an important source of fuel.

Native Cultures

For at least 2,000 years pinyon nuts have been used by Native American peoples of the Southwest, including Pueblo, Navajo, Ute, Shoshone, Cahuilla and Paiute. The fall harvest of these nuts was an occasion for great festivity. Surpluses were stored for winter food supply. The seeds were also used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. It is still common for many Native Americans of the Southwest to supplement their diet with the traditional pinyon nut by gathering them in the time-honored tradition passed from generation to generation.


In the desert Southwest from September through November, it is fun for families to gather their own pinyon nuts, and do their own roasting and salting. After the first fall frosts, the mature cones slowly open, spilling their nuts on the ground; barring rain or snow, this can be an easy way of harvesting.

Early Harvest: Still Unopened Cones

To harvest the still-unopened cones of the pinyon pine, begin by wearing gloves to protect your hands from the pitch that covers the cone and branches. (Sap can be removed from hands and clothes with solvents like cooking oil or alcohol.) You will also need heavy-duty footwear, bright clothing (it is likely to be hunting season), a light ladder and sacks for carrying the cones. When harvesting, pick only the cones from the tree, and avoid breaking any limbs.

After picking the cones, you can leave them in the sacks and place them in the sun for several days. Turn the sacks daily to provide even heating to the cones. When the cones are dried and opened, shake the sacks, dislodging the nuts from the cones. Another method is to lay the cones on canvas in the sun and use a shovel to turn them until they are dried.

Later Harvest: Opened Cones

Still another method is to knock the nuts from the cones after the cones are more ripe and dry. Lay a tarp under the tree, place the ladder against the tree and knock against the cones with a stick to shake the nuts loose and onto the tarp below.

To clean the pine nuts, Native Americans would use wicker trays and throw the nuts into the air, then let the wind carry away the broken cone scales and bracts. You can do the same, or use a screen or wire mesh of 1/2-inch spacing to separate the nuts from the waste materials.

A fast picker can gather about twenty pounds a day. It takes about 1,500 of the tiny nuts to equal a pound. No permit is required for gathering pinyon nuts on public lands managed by the BLM or USFS for quantities up to 25 pounds. Anything above this amount is considered to be commercial usage, and a permit is required.

Pine nuts ripen about the same time that hunting season is in progress. For your safety, it is best to wear bright clothing. Woodlands may also be extremely dry during the harvest season, so be careful of fires. The BLM requests you leave your harvest and camping area clean and pack out what you pack in.

Care must be taken in the storage of pine nuts. Keep them cool to ensure freshness. They easily become rancid. Storage in the fridge or freezer in an airtight container is best.


Pinyon nuts contain more protein per weight than any other nut or seed. They are nutritionally good to eat as is, without further enhancement. Their flavor may be improved in a number of ways though:

  • Soak the nuts in brine water, then toast them in an open pan in the oven at a moderate temperature.
  • Wash them in cold water, salt them, and put in a covered roasting pan. Steam them in a moderate oven for 15 to 20 minutes, remove the cover, and stir until completely dry.

Still, pinyon nuts are usually eaten raw or lightly toasted. They are excellent in salads and vital for pesto sauce. They are a traditional favorite with lamb, veal, pork, chicken, fish, duck and game birds. Pinyon nuts are also popular in stuffings, sauces, vegetables, soups, stews, sweetmeats, cakes and puddings.


Pinyon & Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta
Serves 4

  • 1 lb capellini or linguine
  • 6 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 2/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, oil-packed, drained & chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated


Boil pasta in salted water until almost tender, then drain. Heat 3 Tbsp olive oil in large skillet and add pasta, frying about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Transfer pasta to large bowl and add remaining olive oil to same skillet. Add toasted pinyon nuts and sun-dried tomatoes, stirring over high heat, about 2 minutes. Pour pine nut mixture over pasta. Add chopped basil and grated cheese and toss. Add salt, pepper and serve, adding grated cheese to taste.

Pinyon-Mint Black Bean Soup
Serves 4

  • 2 cups black beans soaked overnight
  • 1 Tbsp olive or light olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 leek, finely sliced
  • 1 red jalapeno chile, minced
  • 10 cups water
  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 2 Tbsp fresh mint, minced
  • 5 Tbsp pinyon nuts toasted and chopped
  • 1 tsp salt


Soak beans overnight and drain. Transfer to a large soup pot, cover with fresh water, boil for 5 minutes, then drain and rinse. Add oil, onion, leek and chile to the soup pot and saute briefly. Add beans and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until beans are tender, about 1 hour. Add salt, then puree half the beans in a blender until smooth. Return puree to the pot, add yogurt and reheat, stirring in pinyon nuts and cilantro. Reserve some nuts for garnish, along with the mint. Ladle and serve.

Pinyon-Asparagus Stir-Fry Chicken
Serves 4

  • 2 cups chicken breast diced
  • 1/2 cups pinyon nuts, toasted
  • 1/2 lb asparagus, cut in 2-inch lengths
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 Tbsp scallions finely chopped, including greens
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp chili oil
  • 1 tsp sesame oil


Heat wok or giant frying pan, then add vegetable oil, chili oil, garlic, and chicken, stir-frying until white, but not completely cooked through (about 5 minutes). Add sesame oil, asparagus and onions, stir-frying for 5 minutes. Add pine nuts, soy sauce and water, tossing for one minute, then serve with steamed rice.


Complete Index of Desert Lil's Delicacies


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