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Illuminations from the throne

How to crack a nut.

Mixed nuts.
Photo Credit: Marina Raspopova

Nuts are tough nuts to crack. Mostly. Some are actually quite easy. Of course, you’re supposed to crack the shell, not the nut but ignoring that, I’ve devised what I hope is a helpful toughness scale for the most common varieties, typically found in a bag of mixed nuts. Starting with the easiest.

Hazelnuts
Hazelnuts defy the cliche given that they’re pretty easy to crack. They’re just the right size to fit snuggly into the smaller jaws of a standard nutcracker and the shell is so thin, a gentle squeeze is enough to access the goodness inside. Anyone can crack a hazelnut.

It’s fortunate for me that hazelnuts are my favourite. I don’t just mean when they’re added to Nutella but I am excluding honey & caramel, salted and dry roasted peanuts which, having been processed to within a Planck length of their lives, obviously taste far more delicious.

Almonds
Moving up the nut-cracking-toughness scale requires a definition of what it actually means for a nut to be tough to crack. Do we mean a tougher nut simply requires more strength or is a measure of skill also necessary? Revisiting the hazelnut; the only skill involved is to avoid crushing it with an overly vigorous cracking action. Almonds on the other hand, call for a lot more pressure and zero skill.

For some reason almonds have evolved with a particularly chunky shell. You really gotta squeeze hard on those crackers. Purely in terms of the force required, I believe they can claim to be the toughest nuts to crack. Indeed, I question if they’re even worth it. The nut nestled inside tends to be disappointedly meagre compared to what you started with and it often tastes quite bitter. The effort/reward ratio is below the threshold with almonds. It’s better to think of them as confectionary and buy a pack of the sugared variety instead.

Walnuts
Walnuts have a more intricate structure than the nuts we’ve encountered so far and are accordingly more fragile. The necessary cracking force is somewhere between hazelnuts and almonds but here’s where your cracking skills come into play because it’s rather difficult to prise out the prize in one piece. To be honest, I’ve yet to figure out the technique.

I start by gently squeezing my nuts. The shell cracks but doesn’t entirely break open. At this point I consider it too risky for crackers so I switch to guns... er... I mean fingers, but it’s still too hard for fingers so I switch back to missiles, inevitably smashing it to pieces. Despondently, I begin the process of identifying broken bits of nut from broken bits of shell. My walnut cracking methodology is in need of improvement and I’m open to suggestions.

Pecans
To my palate, pecans taste much the same as walnuts but their substantially thinner shell and elongated shape makes them way more difficult to crack without, once again, producing a pile of detritus, which is why a whole bunch of pecans tend to be left in my nut bag when all the hazelnuts, almonds and walnuts are gone. Then, with a sigh, I attempt to tackle them.

As someone who struggles with walnuts, I have no hope with pecans. The first problem is how to position them in your crackers. Logically, lengthways should crack the shell in the best place but a standard nutcracker lacks the design capable of clamping a pecan this way. It just falls out.

Gripping the nut around its middle and applying a tender squeeze is a false start. The shell can be cracked without breaking the nut but not in a way that’s convenient to extract it. Peeling off the shell seems to be the only feasible option but it’s stubborn stuff. Usually you get to a piece that won’t budge so you give it another go in the crackers and then… destruction. And it hurts my fingers.

The only reason I ever try to crack a pecan is to see if I can liberate the nut in one piece. Through a combination of luck and great patience I have managed it a few times. Such joyous occasions warrant calling someone to share the achievement. But it’s not worth the hassle just to eat the contents.

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