What are Pecans?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pecans are the product of the hickory tree, also known as Carya illinoinensis. The trees are native to Central and Southern North America, and were utilized as a food source by Native Americans for centuries before the arrival of European colonists. The plants were not actually domesticated until the 17th century, when the first plantations of pecans were established in Mexico. The nuts have a distinctive rich, buttery flavor which often appears in Southern desserts such as praline and pecan pie. Pecans are also used in a variety of savory foods.

Gorgonzola cheese, which can be served with candied pecans.
Gorgonzola cheese, which can be served with candied pecans.

The trees can live and produce nuts for hundreds of years, if they are in a favorably temperate climate and they are well cared for. Many venerable pecan orchards have been continuously producing nuts through several generations of cultivation. The trees are deciduous, dropping their leaves in the winter to conserve energy and putting out fresh growth in the spring. Pecans are in the Juglandaceae family along with walnuts, and the leaves of the two trees look very similar, appearing in pinnately compound simple rows on the branch.

Hickory trees produce pecans.
Hickory trees produce pecans.

The pecans appear in the fall. The shells are oblong in shape, yielding ovoid nuts with a very high fat content. The high fat content of pecans causes them to go rancid very easily, so care must be taken in handling pecans to make sure that they stay edible. After harvesting, pecans can be left whole in their shells or shelled using a vacuum pressure unit. The nuts are packaged for sale, ground into pecan butter, or pressed to make pecan oil.

When selecting whole pecans in the shell, look for shells without signs of cracks or holes. When shaken, the nuts should not rattle, as this suggests that they are dessicated. Shelled pecans should look plump, with no signs of shriveling or wrinkling. The nuts should be stored in a cool dry place until use, or frozen if consumers are not sure when they are going to use them.

In savory dishes, pecans can lend a burst of rich, buttery flavor. Some cooks like to candy pecans and sprinkle them on salads or pastas, especially in combination with rich cheeses like Gorgonzola and blue cheese. The pecan also has a long history as a dessert nut, and appears in candies, pies, and cakes. Many Southern cooks are happy to share pecan recipes with people who ask for them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments


@chicada- All I can say is wow...I wish my mother would have given me praline pecans. I read your recipe and decided to try them out. I found a recipe for peach chutney and the dish came out amazing. Until last night, I had never thought of using candied pecan halves in anything other than pecan pie. Kudos to you.


@georgesplane- I am not sure if you are into seafood, but I can give you a great recipe for praline pecan crusted scallops that I came up with when I used to work for a fine dining restaurant. It is a very simple dish that you can put together in about twenty minutes time. To complement the dish, I make a very simple sauce, but that recipe I am going to keep (I never give away sauce recipes unless they are basic recipes). To give you a hint, it is a sweet and spicy white peach sauce. Find something that is subtly sweet and spicy for these scallops.

The ingredients you will need are a half cup of your caramelized or praline pecans, one cup of flour, one teaspoon of baking powder, one egg (beaten), eight to a dozen large divers scallops (one pound), a pan with a half inch of canola oil, and a baking dish. Chop the pecans with a knife or in a food processor and mix with the flour and baking soda.

Pat dry the scallops with a few paper towels (the drier the better), dip in flour, then egg, then the pecan and flour mix. Gently pan fry them in the oil until the crust is golden brown, turning gently and regularly. The sugar on the pecans will brown quickly so once golden brown, place the scallops on a baking dish and place in a 400-degree oven. Bake until the scallops plump and firm (about 5-10 minutes). The scallops should be opaque/white and flaky when cut with a fork. Arrange on a plate, sprinkle with chopped pecans and drizzle with sweet and spicy peach sauce before serving.


My mother gave me a big bag of candied roasted pecans when she came to visit and I have no idea what to do with them. I am not the biggest fan of pecans by themselves so I was hoping someone could give me some interesting recipes to use them in. When I say I have a big bag, I am talking in the range of two to three pounds. Help me make something great with these nuts.


If several varieties of pecans are planted together it will result in larger nuts.

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