Pecan Vs Walnut – What’s The Difference?

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If you’re browsing the nut aisle at your local bulk supply store, you’re likely to find pecans and walnuts sitting side by side. They look remarkably similar and even have a close enough taste profile to make reasonable substitutes for each other in recipes, but there are some substantial differences.

So, pecans vs walnuts – what’s the difference? Pecans and walnuts share the same family of trees, but are two distinctly different fruits with different shells, appearances, and overall tastes. The easiest way to tell the difference is by their appearance; pecans are darker than walnuts and less rigged.

Pecans are also sweeter than walnuts, though walnuts are more buttery in flavor. They have very similar nutritional profiles, but some key differences may change their appeal based on your individual dietary needs and goals.

In this article, we’ll discuss all the ways pecans and walnuts are similar and, more importantly, how they differ.

Pecan Trees Vs Walnut Trees

Walnuts and pecans do come from the same family, the Junlandacea or the walnut family. 

There are more than 50 species of trees within this family across the globe, though the vast majority are in the Northern Hemisphere, including North and Central America as well as many parts of Europe and Asia.

Pecans are native to Mexico and Central and South America, whereas walnuts are indigenous to Central and South America as well as Asia and southern Europe.

Pecan trees grow much larger than walnut trees which average around 70-80 ft. A small pecan tree will be as tall as the largest walnut tree, around 70-100 feet and taller. Pecan trees can easily grow up to twice that height at their prime. 

Walnut Tree Leaves Vs Pecan Tree Leaves

Because walnut trees and pecan trees are closely related, they often look very similar. The nuts themselves look quite different, but you can also tell the differences between the trees by looking at the leaves. 

Both walnut trees and pecan trees have an alternative leaf arrangement, meaning their leaves are staggered as they grow up a stem, as opposed to having leaves directly opposite each other. The shape of the leaves, however, are quite different. 

Pecans are generally identified by their sickle-shaped leaves, which are very distinctive. Walnut leaves are more lance-like, wider at the base, and come to a point at the tip. 

There are also more leaves on each stem of a pecan tree. A walnut tree might have up to 9 leaves per branch, whereas a pecan tree will have at least 9, and potentially up to 17.

What Is a Pecan?

Pecans in their shells.

Pecans, as we know them, are the edible nuts that grow on pecan trees.

They’re one of the most popular nuts, especially in North and Central America, where they grow natively.

They’re delicious as out-of-hand snacks but are also often used in desserts and cooking for their neutral and complementary flavor profile and smooth yet crunchy texture.

Are Pecans Nuts?

Pecans are considered culinary nuts, but not true nuts.

True nuts consist only of an inedible hard shell and a seed, which is softer and edible. Unless you harvest your own pecans, you may not realize that there is more to them than simply the edible seed and the hard shell.

Pecans are actually a fruit that has a pit, similar to a peach but without the juicy flesh. Pecans simply have an outer husk that dries and cracks, exposing the stone inside, which we think of as a nut.

What Do Pecans Look Like?

Pecans and walnuts may look slightly similar once they’re cracked, but they are very different nuts.

Pecan shells are light brown, oblong, and smooth. They’re slightly pointed at the top where they connect to the stem of the plant and the bottom is rounded.

Inside the shell, the edible portion of a pecan is darker than a walnut and more consistent in shape.

Pecans are oblong and generally split in half when cracked. Both walnuts and pecans are said to look similar to a human brain.

Pecans will have wrinkles, or ridges, like a walnut, but these ridges will appear more uniform and less random. There is usually one thin dividing ridge down the middle, and each side has a single indentation.

What Do Pecans Taste Like?

Pecans are a sweet, slightly chewy nut. They are dryer than walnuts and don’t have as much oil in them, but the oils become rich and savory as they warm.

Because of their natural sweetness, pecans are often candied or added to recipes that call for sweet and savory ingredients. They’re often used alongside fruit and sweet-potatoes, or in desserts like pecan pie.

Types of Pecans

Shockingly, there are more than 500 types of unique pecans that produce nuts that are each slightly different in flavor, color, shape, size, and texture.

In commercial production, however, there are dramatically fewer varieties and they often aren’t even distinguished in their packaging or marketing. 

Commercially grown pecans are cultivated mainly for their “improved” thin shell that makes them easier to crack.

Wild pecans have a much thicker outer shell that requires a great deal of force to open. Thinner shells for commercial production also mean there is more meat per nut since the shell is not taking up as much space.

How to Harvest Pecans

If you have a pecan tree of your own or you’re in an area that allows you to forage for them, harvesting is not difficult. 

The easiest way to harvest pecans is to simply find them on the ground and pick them up. When they’re fully ripe, the outer husk will split open and drop the shell and seed onto the ground. 

If you’ve found a tree with some nuts blanketing the ground nearby, chances are there are plenty more in the tree almost ready to drop. Give the tree a light shake to increase your pecan bounty hunt.

As you’re picking them up, look for wormholes. If a worm has penetrated the shell, it will likely be rancid, whether or not the worm stuck around.

Discard any nuts with holes or obvious cracks and other damage.

If you harvest too many to eat, you can keep your pecans fresh for longer and extend their shelf life for up to 2 years by freezing your pecans after you’ve harvested them.

What Is a Walnut?

Whole and opened walnuts.

A walnut is an edible nut from any walnut tree. These nuts are also some of the most popular nuts to eat raw, as well as to bake with.

They’ve become very well-known for their healthy fat content and are thought of as a health food.

Are Walnuts Nuts?

Similar to pecans, walnuts are culinary nuts but not true nuts. A better definition is a drupe, but they’re not a true drupe either. They’re a drupe-like, nut-like fruit.

The fruit of walnut trees has a green outer husk encasing the hard shell that protects the edible seed inside.

As the walnut ripens, the husk gets hard and eventually cracks open to reveal the shell. 

What Do Walnuts Look Like?

Walnuts in the shell are much rounder than pecans and considerably bumpier. They have a clear ridge that connects the two halves of the nut that runs lengthwise through it. The shells almost look old and wrinkly. 

Inside the shell, walnuts look more like a brain than a pecan. The two halves are bumpy and irregular, prone to breaking off into smaller pieces when the shell is cracked open. The flesh of a walnut is also lighter than that of a pecan.

Inside each walnut, there is a very thin, papery skin that separates the ridges and grooves of the walnut.

Most people don’t eat this skin, but it can be a bit of a pain to remove it from all the nooks and crannies and leads to more breakage as the nut is cleaned. This doesn’t happen with pecans.

What Do Walnuts Taste Like?

Walnuts are slightly bitter and quite buttery in texture. They have a very obvious nutty flavor and are often appreciated for their soft crunch and earthy bite. 

They’re more likely to be included in recipes that include a little extra natural sweetener, such as maple syrup or raisins. Walnuts are popular in granola and oatmeal, as well as hearty muffins and, of course, maple walnut ice cream.

Types of Walnuts

The two most common types of walnut are the Persian or English walnut and the Black walnut.

Black walnuts are known for their extraordinarily rich flavor and equally extraordinary hard shells. Because they’re much more difficult to crack, English walnuts are more commercially popular.

Most walnuts are native to Europe and Asia, though the southern states of the U.S., as well as California and Arizona, have also been found to be great environments for growing walnut trees.

The variants that grow in these states are generally named for their geographic location, such as the Arizona walnut or the California black walnut.

How to Eat Walnuts

Walnuts can be eaten raw, toasted, made into butter, or even pickled, in some places. However, you have to get them out of their shells first. 

Standard English walnuts can generally be cracked with most nutcrackers or even the nut-cracking feature on a pair of good kitchen scissors. Black walnuts, on the other hand, need a heavy-duty nutcracker to handle the extremely hard shell.

The meat from a walnut is very versatile and is used in both savory and sweet recipes. 

Baked goods often feature nuts either as an ingredient or a crushed topping. They add both crunch and chew to the texture along with a subtle nutty flavor.

Savory dishes often suggest toasting the walnut first. It can be a great addition to sauces, turning into a very creamy consistency when the nuts are soaked or toasted and then pureed.

Walnut oil is also a popular way to bring the savory nuttiness of walnuts to a dish without using the whole nut itself.

Young walnuts are also used to create very specific types of liquors, such as the Italian Nocino.

Like pecans, you can even freeze walnuts to extend their shelf life so that you can use them in your recipes or as a snack for up to 1 year.

Pecans Vs Walnuts – Nutrition Content

Pecans and walnuts are very similar in their nutritional makeup, as they’re quite closely related.

They’re both known for being rich sources of healthy fats, low in carbohydrates, and high in a variety of vitamins and minerals.

However, there are some key differences in the types of fat each is praised for, as well as some variations in vital minerals and vitamins.

Nutrition Content of Pecans

While keto is undoubtedly the most popular diet trend of the day, there are still plenty of people who get nervous around the topic of fat. Can it really be healthy?

With more than 78 grams of fat per cup, are pecans good for you?

Yes, pecans are very good for you in a variety of ways. They are low-carb, low-sugar nuts that are still high in fiber, which is great for your digestive and metabolic systems.

They also have a decent amount of protein in them, along with healthy fats and an array of vitamins and minerals.

Fat Content

First off, not many people would actually consume an entire cup of pecans in a single sitting.

Although, if you did, that would probably max out your Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of fat for that day, depending on your individual body size and needs.

However, more important than how much fat is in pecans, we need to consider what type of fat it is. Pecans are particularly high in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs).

MUFAs are considered one of the healthiest types of fat you can consume, linked to positive improvements to blood sugar levels, blood pressure levels, and properly balanced cholesterol levels.

Vitamin Content

Pecans and walnuts are both high in B vitamins, but pecans outperform in thiamine, or vitamin B1. Thiamine is one of the vitamins that help your body convert food into energy.

Without a proper supply, your metabolism has a harder time creating ATP, which transports energy to your cells for use. 

Mineral Content

In terms of minerals, walnuts outperform pecans in most cases, though there are a few exceptions. 

Pecans are a fantastic source of zinc, an essential mineral that is key for immune system health, among other benefits. It’s so important that many foods are fortified with zinc, though pecans come by it honestly.

Manganese is also richly provided by pecans. This is a trace mineral, meaning you only need small amounts of it, but it is essential for your health.

Manganese helps your brain and nervous system to function properly. Walnuts are also a good source of manganese, but pecans are better.

Nutrition Content of Walnuts

Another food item that has more fat than anything else is the walnut. Let’s take a look at the question, are walnuts good for you

Walnuts are well-known for being good for your brain, a fact that is easy to remember because the nut itself kind of looks like a brain.

The combination of healthy fats and specific vitamins found in walnuts has been shown to reduce inflammation and minor damages in your brain tissue.

Walnuts have less fiber than equal amounts of pecans, but more protein. Both help increase satiety and the feeling of fullness when you eat.

Fat Content

Where pecans were high in MUFAs, walnuts reign supreme in polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). You have probably heard about the importance of omega fatty acids, particularly omega 3. 

Omega 3 fatty acids have been proven to reduce inflammation and help improve conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

Many foods have omega 6 fatty acids, which are also essential but can contribute to inflammation if the balance between omega 3 and 6 are too disrupted.

Modern diets are rich in omega 6 and severely lacking in omega 3. Walnuts have the best ratio of all nuts and are considered one of the best plant-based sources of omega 3 you can consume.

Vitamin Content

Walnuts and pecans are both great sources of a variety of vitamins in small amounts, including vitamins A, E, K, and all the B vitamins. Where walnuts really shine is in vitamin B6.

Vitamin B6 is another vitamin that helps your metabolism function properly, but it’s also crucial to the creation of new red blood cells and neurotransmitters.

Mineral Content

Except for zinc and manganese, walnuts are the clear winners in the minerals department when challenged by pecans. 

Walnuts are a good source of calcium, iron, and potassium, minerals crucial to the healthy maintenance of bones and blood. They’re also a great source of magnesium, phosphorus, and, more notably, copper. 

Copper is a trace mineral that is required for the absorption of iron. It also plays a key role in the production of red blood cells, as well as developing and maintaining bone, connective tissue, and major organs.

Related Questions

How Do You Toast Pecans?

Toasting pecans brings out a rich new flavor profile that will make your mouth water. 

Depending on what you would like to use your pecans for, you can toss them into a little extra fat, such as melted coconut oil or ghee, and then sprinkle on some seasoning that matches your recipe.

Popular, simple seasonings are sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, or something a little spicier, like a curry blend or some paprika.

To toast them, spread your the pecans evenly over a baking sheet that is covered in parchment paper. Place them in an oven that’s preheated to 350°F.

They’ll take about 8–10 minutes to toast well, but you’ll want to shake or mix them up at least 1 or 2 times to prevent them from burning or only toasting on one side. 

You can also toast pecans in a pan over medium heat. This is a faster option, taking only about 5 minutes, but you’ll need to give them constant attention. Stir frequently to keep your pecans from burning.

Are Pecans Keto-Friendly?

Pecans are one of the most keto-friendly nuts there is! A 1-ounce serving size has a grand total of 20 grams of fat for only about 4 grams of carbohydrates.

Are walnuts keto-friendly? Yes, they have a very similar nutritional makeup. For that same 1-ounce serving size you’ll still get about 4 grams of carbs, but a slightly lower amount of fats, at 18 grams.

You’ll also get fewer calories though, so they’re still a great snack option for keto dieters.

Can Dogs Eat Walnuts?

The meat from raw English walnuts is usually safe for dogs, but black walnuts can be toxic, and so can the hulls from walnuts.

If you’ve accidentally dropped a few pieces while making your morning muesli and your dog enjoyed a special treat, there’s no reason to panic.

However, if you have walnut trees in your yard or nearby, or have a habit of shelling your own walnuts frequently, you will want to be careful that your pup doesn’t get in the habit of seeking out the nut.

It could lead to consuming the hulls and shells as well. Old, rancid walnuts can also be very dangerous to your dog, so it’s a good idea not to make this a common treat for them.

The next question on your mind is probably, can dogs eat pecans? No, you should avoid giving your dog pecans because they have a substance called aflatoxin which can cause liver damage in dogs.

Again, a tiny accidental piece is not likely to cause immediate damage, but pecans should not be considered a safe treat.

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