What To Do With Hickory Nuts? The Ultimate Guide Of Using Hickory Nuts

Hickory nuts are the edible seeds of trees in the Carya genus, commonly known as hickory trees.

There are around 20 hickory species native to North America and Asia that produce edible nuts.

Hickory nuts have served as an important seasonal food in their native regions, valued for their rich, sweet flavor.

Their hard shells and high fat content also make them excellent portable snacks.

Regional cuisines in areas of eastern North America and Asia where hickory trees grow still integrate hickory nuts into traditional fall recipes.

Brief History and Origin of Hickory Nuts

  • Hickory species are indigenous to eastern North America and Asia.
  • Archaeological evidence shows hickory nuts as a food source for Native American tribes for over 9,000 years in what is now the eastern United States.
  • The dense shells protected the highly nutritional kernels, facilitating their use as a preserved food. Native Americans also used hickory nut oil for cooking.
  • Hickory nuts became an adopted autumn food tradition of European colonists in North America in the 18th century and onward.

Types of Hickory Nuts

There are around 17 hickory species producing edible nuts in North America:

  • Shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) – Thick, hard shell with very sweet, large nutmeat
  • Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) – Easier to crack shell with richly flavored nutmeat, most popular commercially in addition to pecan
  • Pecan (Carya illinoinensis)- Thin shelled with very high quality nutmeat, the most commercially popular hickory nut

Other minor edible species occur, but shellbark, shagbark, and pecan account for most edible hickory nuts gathered in North America.

Asia also has some edible Carya species, but North American varieties remain most commercially popular worldwide.

Hickory Nuts: Culinary, and Other Uses

Hickory nuts have long been foraged in North America for their sweet, rich flavor and impressive nutrient profile.

The nuts of hickory trees vary quite a bit in shape, size, and hardness of shell, but they all pack a tasty punch when cracked open.

Read on to learn about some of the many culinary, nutritional, and other creative uses of foraged hickory nuts.

There are many ways hickory nuts can be incorporated into recipes to lend their uniquely sweet and smoky flavors. Here are some of the most common culinary uses:

Nut Milk

Hickory nuts can be used to make a creamy, nutritious plant-based milk. Simply soak the nuts overnight, drain them, then blend with water. Strain out the solids, and you’ll be left with a rich, nutty milk that can be enjoyed on its own or used in smoothies, baking, etc. Hickory milk has a higher fat content than other nut milks, resulting in an ultra-creamy texture.

Potential health benefits of hickory milk include antioxidants, vitamin E, magnesium, and phytosterols. The milk is also dairy-free and vegan. Some find it easier to digest than cow’s milk. Hickory milk has a sweet, mild flavor that works well in both savory and sweet applications.


Hickory nuts can be used in a variety of baked goods and other recipes to add nutty flavor and crunch. Specific ideas include:

Cookies – Add chopped hickory nuts to chocolate chip, oatmeal, or other cookie doughs

Muffins – Fold into banana nut, apple cinnamon, or other muffin batters

Breads – Sprinkle into quick breads, banana breads, zucchini breads, etc.

Granola – Toast with oats, seeds, dried fruit, and other mix-ins

Pestos – Blend into basil, kale, or other pestos in place of pine nuts

Salads – Sprinkle over fall fruit and greens salads

Rice Pudding – Stir into warm rice pudding for added flavor and texture

Hickory nuts have a higher fat content than some other nuts, resulting in soft, chewy textures in baked goods. Their sweet, mild flavor plays well with both sweet and savory ingredients.

Hickory Nut Oil

Pressing hickory nuts produces a fragrant, richly flavored oil with a pale golden color.

Hickory oil has a high smoke point and mildly nutty taste.

Potential uses include:

  • Sautéing veggies, tofu, tempeh, or meats
  • Making salad dressings or marinades
  • Drizzling over finished soups or stews
  • Brushing onto proteins before grilling or roasting
  • Adding nutty flavor to pestos or herb mixes
  • Making nutty baked goods like cookies or muffins

Compared to olive or vegetable oil, hickory nut oil has a more pronounced nutty taste.

It can provide that flavor without needing to toast or actually add nuts to a dish. Use it anywhere you want a subtle, sweet nuttiness.

Hickory Syrup

Extracting and boiling down the sap from shagbark hickory trees results in a rich, smoky syrup similar to maple syrup.

Shagbark hickory syrup tastes sweeter and more intense than maple. Potential uses include:

  • Pancakes or waffles
  • French toast
  • Oatmeal or porridge
  • Sweetening beverages like coffee or tea
  • Glazing meats like ham or chicken
  • Using in cocktail mixes, marinades, salad dressings, and more

Hickory syrup has hints of butterscotch and caramel flavor due to its high sap sugar content.

It makes a delicious, uniquely American alternative to maple syrup.

Other Uses

Beyond eating them, hickory nuts have some additional interesting uses as well:

Foraged Ingredients

The unique, sweet, smoky essence of hickory nuts allows creative foragers to get excellent use out of limited harvests.

Grating over ice cream, infusing into vinegar or liquor, or featuring them in a unique foraged ingredient dish.

As you can see, the culinary and nutritional benefits of wild hickory nuts collected straight from the forest offer unique flavors and textures.

These creative uses scratch only the surface of how they can be utilized in your kitchen or as part of a self-foraged diet.

Nutritional Value of Hickory Nuts

Hickory nuts provide an excellent source of energy and nutrition:

  • High in heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats
  • Good source of fiber
  • Moderate source of plant-based protein
  • Rich in B vitamins like thiamine and vitamin B6
  • Excellent source of phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and selenium minerals

The oil content makes hickory nuts highly calorically dense at over 700 calories per 100 grams. This made them vital survival foods for Native Americans and American colonists. They provide abundant energy in a compact package.

Harvesting and Storing Hickory Nuts

Timing during autumn is crucial when harvesting and storing hickory nuts properly:

When and Where to Find Hickory Nuts

  • Hickories mature earlier than other North American nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, and acorns that also have fall harvests (9).
  • Start monitoring hickory trees in early September as leaves start changing color. The nuts develop inside green husks that turn brown or black when fully ripe.
  • Hickories grow in well-drained upland sites like ridges, hillslopes, river bottoms, and creek banks in eastern North American forests (10).

How to Harvest Hickory Nuts

  • Be prepared to pick up fallen nuts frequently as different ones mature and drop throughout September and October.
  • Avoid any nuts still inside green husks, as those are not fully developed.
  • The dye juglone in hulls will stain skin brown, so wear gloves when gathering.
  • Use a nut picker to comb through fallen leaves to find nuts if needed.

How to Store Hickory Nuts

Prompt post-harvest preparation preserves freshness:

  • Remove nut hulls soon after gathering, before they fully dry and stick to the shell.
  • Wash nuts to remove hull residue and drying sap prior to storage.
  • Completely dried nutmeats last the longest, so dry with towels before storage if needed.
  • Cool, dark places like cellars or refrigerators provide ideal storage conditions.
  • Mesh bags or wire buckets allow airflow while preventing pests.
  • With ideal storage, hickory nuts can last for months.

Hickory nuts offer a uniquely flavored wild autumn food, but proper harvesting and storing helps retain their quality.

Their rich history and nutrition continue to make them a cherished seasonal treat.

Cracking Hickory Nuts

Hickory nuts have a delicious, sweet, nutty flavor that makes them worth the effort to extract the meat from inside their hard outer shells.

Cracking open these nuts can be challenging if you don’t have the right tools and technique.

This guide will teach you several methods for successfully cracking hickory nuts without breaking the kernel inside.


You don’t need any fancy gadgets to crack hickory nuts. Some basic equipment that works well includes:

  • Nut cracker – A standard nutcracker with angled metal “jaws” works better than a parallel jaw type. Make sure it’s sturdy and cast from steel or iron rather than a weaker aluminum or plastic.
  • Small hammer – A hammer with a slightly rounded head allows for precision strikes. Use one with some weight behind it.
  • Solid surface – Place nuts on a spot of concrete, brick, or stone when hammering. The solid base helps crack the shell.
  • Wood block – A wood block or small log round also makes a good striking surface and absorbs some impact.

Technique Basics

No matter which tool you use, the technique for successful hickory nut cracking involves precision and controlled strikes:

  • Set the nut in the nutcracker or on your hard surface with the fattest part facing up. The two halves of the shell come apart most easily when struck near the nut’s equator.
  • Squeeze the nutcracker or strike the hammer straight down on the shell to avoid glancing blows that can shatter the nut meat. Keep fingers safely clear!
  • Calibrate the force of your squeeze or swing to use the minimum power needed to just crack the shell in two without turning the kernel to crumbs.
  • Pare away shell fragments gently with a nut pick to extract the nutmeat in halves or large pieces if possible.

Nutcracker Method

Position nut: Set the fattest part of the nut upright inside the nutcracker jaws, oriented perpendicular to the pivot. Center it for even pressure.

Apply pressure: Squeeze the handles slowly, steadily increasing pressure until one or both shell halves crack and split along the nut’s ridges.

Stop before crushing: Ease off as soon as a crack appears to avoid breaking the kernel into tiny chunks.

Remove shell: Carefully pry off shell pieces and pick out whole nutmeat.

Hammer Method

Position nut: Place a single hickory nut with the broadest part up on a spot of concrete or a wood block.

Strike sharp blow: Raise hammer slightly above nut and bring straight down with medium force, striking just off-center.

Alternate strikes: Turn the nut about a quarter turn and repeat sharp blows until a crack forms.

Stop when cracked: As soon as the shell fractures, stop striking to keep the kernel intact inside.

Carefully pry: Insert a nut pick under cracked edges and lift off shell pieces to reveal whole nutmeat if possible.

It can take some practice to master the swift, controlled hammer strikes or nutcracker squeezes needed for hickory nuts.

Adjust your technique until clean cracks appear through the shells without smashing the treasured kernels. Soon you’ll be enjoying fresh hickory nut flavor as your reward.


In summary, the hickory nut is a versatile natural product that has served humans well for centuries.

While the rich, sweet nutmeat is enjoyed as a food, nearly every part of the hickory tree has found useful purposes over time.

The strong, flexible wood has been crafted into everything from wagon wheels to baseball bats.

Hickory bark and nuts shells have been used medicinally and to produce dyes. More recently, hickory wood has proven an excellent fuel for smoking foods.

If you found this information on the uses of hickory interesting, be sure to read our other posts on remarkable trees and plants.

We also welcome your comments and experiences with hickory below.

Let us know if you have any favorite foods or products made from hickory!

Nathan Walker

Nathan Walker, an alumnus of Stanford University with a degree in Physics, has remarkably made fame in technological innovation clubbed with precision machinery for two decades. He became part of our team in 2016, specializing in analyzing mechanical systems. Nathan is also a licensed pilot and enjoys combining his love for mechanics with aviation. His articles often reflect a blend of technical acumen and hands-on experience. Nathan is also a history buff, often linking technological advances to historical contexts. In his spare time, he enjoys clay shooting and mentoring young engineers.

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