Pecans: An American Native

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Pecans: An American Southern Native

Pecans along with corn, tomatos, lima beans & Jerusalem artichokes are native to North America & were a major food staple for Southern Native Americans. In today’s cuisine it is not only desserts but also many tasty usages of the pecan. This nut is a truly delicious native of America.

Pecan History

Native to North America, the pecan is a member of the hickory family and closely related to the walnut. Its original botanical name was Hicoria pecan but was changed to Carya illinoinensis in the late seventeenth century. Fur traders brought the pecan to the Atlantic coast from Illinois, calling them Illinois nuts, hence the latin classification of illinoinensis. The English term pecan comes from the Algonquin Indian word paccan or pakan, meaning a nut so hard it had to be cracked with a stone. The Algonquins also referred to walnuts and hickory nuts as paccans. The term pecans first appeared in print in 1773. George Washington planted pecan trees at Mount Vernon, a gift from Thomas Jefferson who is credited with their initial popularity in the South.

It was in 1846, a slave gardener, named Antoine, developed the Centennial variety of pecan by grafting as he was working on Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. Pecans were not part the commercial trade until the mid-19th century. Europeans had never even seen a pecan until the 16th century but they caught on quickly especially in West Central Europe

Pecan trees can grow to be more than 100 feet tall & live to be a 1000+ years. Pecan trees are native to the Mississippi River basin but do well as far north as Illinois & Indiana also southward to Mexico. Out of omore than 1000 varieties, 1 variety has been adapted to grow in the colder climates of Canada. One tree alone can yield up to 400 pounds of nuts in a good year. Australia began harvesting productive pecan crops in 1960 & Israel’s production was boosted in the 1970s. It takes 10 years for a pecan tree to produce a profitable crop. In the United States, pecans are 2nd in popularity only to peanuts which are not even true nuts. The pecan is the state tree of Texas, where it is widely cultivated. The United States produces appooximately 80% of the world’s pecans.

Pecan Mythology

Many of the Southern Native Americans believe the pecan tree to be connected the Great Spirit. The nut of the tree was considered to be valuable. A brisk trade in hides & mats for pecans was developed with early Spaniards in Florida. The Mariame tribe of Texas used the nuts as their sole sustenance for 2 months out of the year. Oil was pressed from this nut by some Native Americans and used inmediciane as well as for cooking.

Pecan Meat

Pecan nuts grow in clusters of 4 on the tree. This edible nut is surrounded by a tough shell within a fiberous husk. When the nuts mature, the husk splits open to release shell-encased nutmeat. Pecans are harvested by shaking the tree & then gathering the fallen nuts from the ground. Unshelled nuts, range in size from 1″ -11/2″, are washed, tumbled quickly with sand & then polished before commercial sale.

Pecan shells are not as hard as the walnut shell, but they still must be cracked with some force. Using a  nutcracker is advisable. Another method is to place 2 pecans against each other in a cross-form & squeezing them together. Inside the the protective shell, is a 2-lobed seed with a smooth, thin, brown edible membrane or skin. The 1/2’s are separated by a dark brown bark-like sheath which must be removed. many slightly immature nutmeats may also have a bit of what looks like fine brown fuzz which must be removed by wiping or brushing because it has a bitter flavor.

Selection & Storage

You want to purchase unshelled nuts that feel heavy for their size, are uncracked & free of holes or blemishes. Shake pecans & if they rattle within the shell then avoid them. Rattling is an indication of age & desiccation. You should avoid bulk tins without expiration dates. You would be better off to purchase those that are in sealed packages or tins with expiration dates.

Fresh pecans are available year-round but generally are at their peak the first 3 weeks after harvesting season in the fall. After that, they will slowly begin become slowly rancid. When properly stored at room temperature, unshelled pecans will keep up to 3 months. Once pecans have been shelled, they be  kept up to 6 months in the refrigerator in a sealed container or up to 1 year in the freezer. Pecans can be frozen shelled or unshelled.

Because pecans have such a high oil content, it is best to purchase pecans in the shell as they turn rancid more quickly than other nuts with a lower oil content. Since pecans will absorb odors & flavors your shelled pecans should always be kept in a closed container.

        Pecan Sizes by 1/2’s per pound
        Mammoth   =  200-250 halves
        Junior Mammoth   =  251-300 halves
        Jumbo   =  301-350 halves
        Extra-Large   =  351-450 halves
        Large   =  451-550 halves
        Medium   =  551-650 halves
        Topper   =  651-750 halves
        Small Topper   =  751 and up

        Pecan Grades
        Fancy – Golden color, no defects
        Choice – Darker than fancy, no defects
        Standard – Harvested green, fuzzy kernels, mottled color, shriveled ends, etc.
        Damaged – Broken or cracked kernels

If you need chopped nuts or pieces for a recipe, there is no need to spend extra money buying fancy or choice grades. Those nuts sold as chopped or pieces are just broken pieces of usually a mixture of fancy and choice grades. Standard grade is generally used for commercial applications.

Non-Edible Pecan Uses

Pecan shells are used in the composition an all organic mulch that is prized by gardeners & botanists alike. The lumber from pecan trees is always in great demand. It is a variably shaded, tight grained wood that makes excellent furniture, paneling, flooring or as an accent. Being a hardwood it has excellent strength properties.

Health Benefits

If you’re looking for a low-calorie food, better steer clear of pecans. Only 1 pound of pecans rings up an amazing 3,633 calories. These nuts have a fat content of nearly seventy percent, the highest of all nuts, which is one reason why early Native American generations relied upon them heavily as a sustaining food source. Pecans contain no cholesterol or sodium. This high oil content also makes it a useful ingredient for those on a low-carbohydrate diet. On the beneficial side, the fat in pecans is unsaturated which has been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. Pecans are very rich in pyridoxine, more commonly known as Vitamin B-6, a vitamin necessary for the regeneration of cells in diseased hearts.

Pecans can double the cholesterol-lowering effectiveness of a traditional heart-healthy diet, according to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, September 2001. An eight-week study at Loma Linda University found that a ‘pecan’ diet (which consisted of replacing 20 percent of the calories from the American Heart Association’s Step I diet foods with pecans) lowered total cholesterol by 11.5%. The Step I diet lowered total cholesterol by 5.2%. In addition, the pecan diet increased the HDL “good” cholesterol whereas the Step I diet decreased HDL unfavorably. Triglycerides also were significantly lower with the pecan diet. Although the pecan diet contained more fat (39.6%) than the Step I diet (28.3%), participants did not gain weight. Along with vitamin B6, pecans are an excellent source of thiamine, zinc, copper, potassium & iron. Being high in fiber is another plus for pecans. Pecans raise Vitamin E levels and may support prostate and intestinal health. 

Further analysis of the participants in the above study revealed that a pecan-enriched diet significantly raised blood levels of gamma tocopherol compared to the Step I diet. This is due to the high amounts of naturally occurring gamma tocopherol (a unique form of vitamin E) in the pecans. Gamma tocopherol is an important antioxidant nutrient and studies have shown that it may benefit intestinal health and have a protective effect against prostate cancer. This research was presented at the April 2001 Experimental Biology meeting and published in the FASEB Journal.

Cooking With Pecans
A single pound of pecans in the shell will yield 2 cups of shelled pecan 1/2’s. A single pound of shelled pecan 1/2’s equals about 4 cups. Pecans can be substituted for walnuts in any recipe but their flavor is slightly more delicate than that of walnuts.

Toasting pecans will bring out their aroma & make them crunchier. To toast pecans, preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Spread pecans on a cookie sheet. Bake about 5 minutes or until lightly browned and aromatic.

When pecans are ground into meal, they can be used as a delicious flavoring additive to breads, cookies & other baked goods. Care must be taken when grinding your own pecan meal at home since the high oil content can turn the meal almost into butter if done too quickly. Pecan oil is a pricey item in gourmet stores & mail order houses.

Pecans are used in 2 of the most popular desserts in the South, pecan pie & Southern pralines. Pecan Balls are a dessert famous in Pittsburgh, Ohio, made by rolling vanilla ice cream in chopped pecans and topping with chocolate syrup.


Yield: 40 Pralines
Cooking Time: 13 minutes

1 cup whipping cream
1 lb light brown sugar
2 cups pecan halves
2 tablespoons margarine, room temperature

Mix cream and brown sugar together in a 4-quart glass mixing bowl.
Microwave on high, 100 percent, 13 minutes (stirring not necessary).
Candy thermometer reading should be 227 degrees F, soft ball stage.
Quickly add pecans and margarine, stirring to mix.
Drop candy by teaspoons onto a sheet of foil.

Yield: 1 pie

1 cup pecan halves or pieces
4 eggs, beaten slightly
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
1 dash cinnamon
1 dash salt
1 cup light corn syrup
Unbaked pie crust

Beat eggs.
Add remaining ingredients including pecans.
Pour into 9″ unbaked pie shell.
Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until knife inserted halfway between center and edge comes out clean.

Yield: 4 Servings

1/2 cup cooked ham
1/2 cup crushed pineapple, drained
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup mayonnaise
4 medium ripe tomatoes

Combine all ingredients, except tomatoes; toss to blend.
Slash chilled tomatoes partially open and fill with ham/pecan stuffing.
Serve on lettuce leaves.

Yield: 4 Servings

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, chopped
1/2 small onion, diced or 6 green onions
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon French style mustard
1 tablespoon snipped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cups finely diced Texas pecans
1 cup fine bread crumbs
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley

On hard surface with meat mallet, pound chicken to 1/4 inch thickness.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Sauté mushrooms and onions in butter.
Mix with cream cheese, mustard and thyme.
Divide into 4 equal portions and spread on each piece of chicken.
Fold over ends and roll up, pressing edges to seal.
Mix pecans, bread crumbs and parsley in a bowl.
Dip chicken in butter, then into crumbs, turning to coat.
Place on greased baking sheet seam side down.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until done.
Serve with rice.

Yield: 1 pie

    3 eggs, beaten
    1 cup sugar
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/3 cup butter, melted
    1 cup light corn syrup
    2 tablespoons bourbon
    1 cup pecan halves
    1 9-inch pie crust, unbaked

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Prepare pie shell.
Mix eggs, sugar, salt, and butter.
Add syrup and bourbon and stir in pecans.
Pour filling into pie shell.
Bake for 50 minutes or until the mixture is firm in the center.
Cool before serving.

Yield: 1 batch

    1 cup pecans
    1 tablespoon butter
    Salt, to taste

Pre-heat oven to 400 deg-F.
In a medium sized mixing bowl, mix pecans, butter and salt.
Place in a baking pan and cook 10 minutes until pecans are fragrant and lightly browned.
Stir frequently to prevent burning.
Cool completely; store in an airtight container in the freezer or refrigerator.
Use to garnish on vegetables, salads, casseroles or desserts.
Add one of the following and cook as above: 2 to 3 drops Tabasco, 2 to 3 teaspoons sugar or 2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce.

Yield: 2 1/2 cups

    6 ea slices bacon
    1 c  chopped pecans, toasted
    1 c  grated sharp Chedder cheese
    1 ts grated onion
    1/2 c  mayonnaise
    1/2 ts salt

Cook bacon until crisp; drain and crumble.
Combine with other ingredients.
Refrigerate at least 1 hour to blend flavors.
Spread on pumpernickle bread.
This is tasty with a slice of onion or a slice of tomato.

Yield: 1 batch

    2 tb melted margarine
    1/4 c  Worcestershire sauce
    1 tb catsup
    1/8 ts hot sauce
    4 c  pecan halves
    Salt to taste

Combine first 4 ingredients, stir in pecans and mix well.
Spread pecans evenly in a shallow baking pan.
Bake at 300 degrees F for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.
Drain on paper towel.
Sprinkle with salt.


National Pecan Shellers Association
1100 Johnson Ferry Road, Suite 300
Atlanta, GA 30342
(404) 252-3663

Copyright © 2006-2008 Donald R Houston, PhD. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.


Address 1100 Johnson Ferry Road, Suite 300 Atlanta, GA 30342
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About the Author ()

Viet Nam vet with the usual baggage but mine is now packed away. Public health specialist & medical anthropologist have worked all over the globe, most recent work since 1988 in the former Soviet Union (now the CIS/NIS) & based out of Flo

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