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What are Cashews?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Cashews are the seeds of the cashew tree, Anacardium occidentale, native to Brazil. The seeds are often mistakenly classified as nuts, and most cooks treat cashews like nuts, especially since they behave like nuts in the kitchen. For people with allergy issues, the distinction between nut and seed can be very important, as some people who are allergic to nuts are not allergic to cashews.

The cashew tree was used as a source of food by Native Americans long before it was discovered by European explorers, who brought the bizarre crescent shaped cashew seeds back to Europe with them. The cultivation of cashews on a small scale began in Europe, but spread into Asia and Africa. India is a major cashew producing nation, and several African countries contribute large crops as well. The name for the seeds is derived from acaju, a Portuguese word which refers to the cashew tree.

The parent tree often resembles an oversized shrub, since the limbs tend to cling close to the ground, and will sometimes re-root themselves if the tree is not attentively cared for. The tree generates clusters of white to pink flowers which develop drupes, seeds enclosed by a fleshy outer layer. As the drupes mature, the cashew tree creates a cashew apple, a pear shaped fruit ranging in color from yellow to red. The cashew apple develops between the drupe and the tree, and when both have matured, the cashew seed ends up dangling from the end of the drupe.

The remarkable appearance of mature cashews must have captivated people who first saw the trees. Before consumption, the cashew seed must be carefully removed from the drupe, since the outer layer is toxic and can be dangerous. This is done by roasting or soaking the cashews, which will split the outer casing to expose the seeds. Until the seeds have been extracted, the drupes must be handled with care, since workers have been known to develop skin rashes and other conditions in response to exposure.

Cashews have a very high fat content, which can lead them to go rancid quickly. The seeds also have a mild buttery flavor and an oily mouthfeel. The cashews can either be processed for sale whole, or ground into cashew butter, a rich creamy spread which can be used like peanut butter. Whole cashews are often used in savory dishes, or eaten plain by fans of the seeds.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By tolleranza — On Aug 31, 2011

@alfredo - The recipe that i have seen that takes the cake for me on cashew butter and jelly sandwiches was one that had the following:

cashew butter, strawberry jelly, whole wheat bread and...

...Granny Smith apple slices! How awesome does that sound?

As far as further uses of cashew butter, I am not sure about, but I have read that cashew butter is usually better for you than peanut butter because it is less processed than peanut butter. So go forth and spread your cashews!

By aLFredo — On Aug 31, 2011

I love peanut butter but after so many years I must say I am looking for a new spread to add to my repertoire; so this cashew butter intrigues me.

What would you put cashew butter on besides a cashew butter and jelly sandwich (and even in the case of the cashew butter and jelly sandwich, what type of jelly is best)?

By geekish — On Aug 31, 2011

I love, love, love raw cashews, stir fried cashews, salted cashews... you just cannot go wrong with a cashew's taste, the buttery smoothness of the nut seems to go with just about anything!

Then you add in the fact that cashews are healthy (in moderation of course), and you have just an amazing food.

Some of my favorite cashew nutrition facts are that they have Magnesium, and 10% of your daily iron need in just one ounce!

By nanny3 — On Aug 30, 2011

Cashews really are the food of the gods. Forget ambrosia. Forget nectar. Cashews are the ticket to pure pleasure.

But did you know that cashews are actually really, really good for you, too? It is one of those rare things that taste so extraordinarily fantastic that you should also eat! I know that it is hard to believe, but it is true.

So, whenever you want something really good to snack on, but you don’t want to feel guilty over it, head to the snack aisle at the grocery store.

Bypass chips and pretzels. Move on by popcorn. Don’t even think about a cheesy poof or a nacho! Get a big old can of honey cashews for lasting pleasure.

Just be aware, that they can be kind of pricey. But boy, oh, boy are they ever worth it!

By oscar23 — On Aug 30, 2011

I was so surprised to learn that cashews are not nuts, but actually seeds! How interesting.

You know what, though? I know that sunflower seeds are seeds, but I still treat them like nuts. I guess it’s the same with cashews, right?

And, you should really keep this little observation in mind if a doctor ever tells you to avoid eating nuts. Treat the seeds like nuts, my friends!

My dad had a bad time with diverticulitis and the doctor told him to absolutely, under no circumstances consume any nuts. So, instead daddy commences to eat as many sunflower seeds as he can possibly consumer.

(He’s a really big fan of nuts of all kinds, so telling him not to eat them would be like telling a fish not to swim.)

Guess what? He ended right back up in the hospital. The next time the doctor was very descriptive, including roasted cashews, sunflower seeds, nuts or anything that resembles a nut.

By SarahSon — On Aug 29, 2011

Every year around the holidays, our company has a wide assortment of goodies for the employees to snack on. They order these jumbo cashews that are so good. Some of them are even dipped in chocolate, and once you get started on them, they can be addicting.

It seems like the cashews always go faster than any of the other nuts. Even when I have been to wedding and graduation receptions that have a bowl of mixed nuts, the cashews are the ones that everybody loves.

I try not to eat too many of them at once because they have quite a bit of fat in them. Even with the fat, I figure they are healthier than a lot of the other sugary snacks.

By LisaLou — On Aug 29, 2011

Cashews are one of my favorite snacks. I gave up eating potato chips a few years ago, but often crave something salty and crunchy.

I buy a big tub of bulk cashews at Costco and keep it where I used to keep all the chips. I have a stash of both cashews and almonds and when I am hungry for a quick snack, will grab a handful of them.

I like the big cashews that come whole better than the cans that just have them in smaller pieces. I know they taste the same, but there is something about eating those big, whole cashews that seems more satisfying.

By parkthekarma — On Aug 28, 2011

As good as cashews are plain or in a stir fry, they also can be good as an ingredient in cookies. My grandmother used to make sugar cookies with cashews in them. The saltiness and savory taste of the cashews went really well with the sweetness of the cookie.

As much as people seem to like these nuts (or really seeds), I'm surprised you don't see them being used in more things. I guess it's time to head to the kitchen and start creating.

By BigManCar — On Aug 27, 2011

@Gravios - I do that too! You cannot leave a can of cashews (or pretty much any other kind of nut) around me for long before it disappears. For that reason, they are one thing I don't buy at Costco. I may not be able to eat the jumbo container, but that never stopped me from trying.

The way I figure, if we weren't supposed to eat them, they wouldn't be delicious. So really we're only doing the right thing.

By MaPa — On Aug 27, 2011

@nextcorrea - I couldn't agree with you more. I love Chinese food made with cashews. You find them in a bunch of Thai dishes, too. I always wondered why there weren't more common in other types of food. My favorite is Pad Thai. There is a restaurant in Toronto that serves it for breakfast. I have no idea why, but it is delicious that time of day.

It's kind of ironic that you mostly think of Asian food having cashews, when they are native to South America.

By seag47 — On Aug 26, 2011

Cashews are one of those rare foods that taste good no matter how you prepare them. They just have so much natural flavor.

I actually love both salted cashews and unsalted ones. I can’t say this for most nuts. Almonds need salt to taste good in my opinion, as do peanuts and filberts. There is just something pure and wonderful about a cashew in its natural form.

Unsalted cashews are great in fruit salad. I love sprinkling them in a bowl with chopped apples and grapes. They balance out the sweetness of the fruit with a nutty flavor that just tastes healthy.

By StarJo — On Aug 25, 2011

It’s strange how something so good for you can have such a toxic shell. I read that there is a caustic resin lining the inside of the shell that is used to make insecticides and varnishes. It’s amazing the cashews themselves don’t absorb this resin and become toxic.

Cashews are a great source of several things we need, like fiber, minerals, vitamins, and chemicals that fight cancer and disease. Their fatty acids are good for lowering bad cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol.

They contain lots of potassium, copper, and iron, among other minerals. They are also packed with vitamin B.

I started eating cashews when I decided to improve my diet. This is an enjoyable way to get health benefits.

By lighth0se33 — On Aug 24, 2011

Honey roasted cashews make an excellent snack, especially when you are on a long trip. I take them along when I know I will be driving or riding for several hours. I just set the can in the middle console and reach for them without taking my eyes off the road.

The slightly sweet flavor mingles with the saltiness, and both cravings get satisfied. In moderation, cashews are good for you, so this might be the world’s most perfect snack.

The only problem is that it’s hard to stop eating them. My friends and I end up munching on them to pass the time even after our hunger is gone because they are so good.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 24, 2011

Cashews add a delicious crunch to one of my favorite meals. It is called chicken cashew stir fry, and I make it at home. It has become my husband’s favorite meal.

I slice chicken cutlets into small slivers. Then, I put them in a carton and add one tablespoon of soy sauce, one-half tablespoon of ginger, and one chopped clove of garlic. I put a lid on and shake it all up to coat the chicken.

I make some plain spaghetti noodles, strain them in a colander, and rinse them with cold water. I also chop up two carrots and a half cup of cashews. These will be added later.

I heat a tablespoon of peanut oil in a wok on medium. Then, I add the chicken slivers and cook them for one minute. Next, I turn the heat down a notch and add half a cup of water, some green beans, and another tablespoon of soy sauce. This needs to simmer for seven minutes.

I then add the spaghetti and carrots. I cook it for another five minutes. Then, I scoop everything onto plates and sprinkle with cashews.

By jonrss — On Aug 23, 2011

I love cashew butter and I have started using this instead of peanut butter on sandwiches and in recipes.

Obviously the flavor is different but there is something else about it that makes it feel so much different than peanut butter. There is a certain kind of creaminess but it never feels heavy. I can't put my finger on it but whatever it is I love it.

I even make my kids lunches with cashew butter. They were kind of resistant at first but now they love it. My only complaint is that it can be expensive. I wish that a major food manufacturer like Peter Pan or Jif would come out with their won cashew butter and save me a little money.

By gravois — On Aug 22, 2011

Cashews are absolutely my favorite kind of nut. It you put a fresh, unopened can of cashews in front of me and left the room for 10 minutes, you would come back and find my face covered in crumbs and the canister empty. That is how much I love them, it is almost a problem.

I learned to love cashews as a kid. My mother had three things close to her at all time. A cigarette, a weak martini and a bowl of cashews. In fact that was about all she lived on. So our house had lots and lots of cashews in it. You might expect me to have grown sick of them but I began to love them. I never did pick up my mother's taste for drinking and smoking but I love cashews as much if not more than her.

By nextcorrea — On Aug 22, 2011

I love how common it is for the Chinese to incorporate cashews into some of their signature dishes. People are probably aware of cashew chicken but these nuts are actually more common in Chinese cuisine than they are given credit for.

I think the combination of the rich and crunchy nut next to the freshness of the vegetables and the saltiness of the soy based sauces makes for a really intriguing flavor profile. And the texture of the nut is so unique, unlike any other ingredient. It is fairly common in eastern cuisine to combine nuts with salty and savory foods but this is a little more rare here in the west. Its a shame. There is lots of potential for exciting new recipes using cashews and other nuts.

By laluna — On Aug 30, 2008

Cashews grow now in a number of tropical countries. They also grow in sandy soil ofFlorida.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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