What’s the Difference Between a Pecan and a Walnut?

So what are the differences? They do share the same family of trees but they have different shells and tastes.

The simplest way to remember which one is which is that pecans are a darker color and have a smoother exterior than walnuts. Pecans have a sweeter taste than walnuts but walnuts are more buttery.

When it comes to nutritional information, they are very similar but there are some differences that may make an impact depending on your dietary needs and goals.

In this article, we’ll be taking you through these differences between walnuts and pecans as well as showing their similarities.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have a better understanding of how they can work in various recipes and when to substitute them with each other. 

Pecan vs Walnut

Both walnuts and pecans come from the Junlandacea or the walnut family. With more than 50 species of this family around the globe, the majority of them are found in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in North and Central America and Europe.

Interestingly, however, pecans are native to Mexico and South American whereas walnuts have their origins in both Americas, Asia and Europe.

There is a major difference in the trees that you find pecans and walnuts. A pecan tree is more likely to grow a lot more than walnut trees.

Walnut trees grow an average of 70 to 80ft tall whereas pecan trees have an average height between 70 and 100 feet and can ever be taller. It’s not unusual to see pecan trees double in height during their prime growth.

Walnut Tree Leaves vs Pecan Tree Leaves

On the outside, both pecan and walnut trees look very similar and the major difference to know which one is which is looking at the leaves.

Both trees have an alternate arrangement which means that they become more scattered as you look upwards compared to trees that have leaves opposite each other.

The shapes are also distinctive as pecan tree leaves are sickle shaped whereas walnut tree leaves have a lance-like appearance that is wider at their base and tipped at the top.

You’re more like to find more leaves on a pecan tree compared to a walnut tree which is another major indicator.

What is a pecan nut?

Pecans are nuts that grow on pecan trees and have a distinctive shell.

One of the most popular varieties of nuts available, they are often consumed as a snack by themselves but can also be incorporated into a wide range of sweet and savory dishes across various cuisines, adding a distinctive flavor and a smooth and crunchy texture to your food.

Although they are often referred to as culinary nuts, pecans are not actually nuts. A true nut will only consist of a hard shell and soft, edible seed.

With pecans, there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to growing and preparing them for sale. They are technically a fruit because they have a pit much like a peach, but do not have a juicy flesh.

The outer husk dries and cracks which then exposes this pit and the pit is what is considered a nut.

What do pecans look like?

Although pecans and walnuts may look similar on the outside, once they are cracked, the differences in appearance are abundantly clear.

The pecan shell is a light brown shade that is long and smooth with a pointed tip where they were connected to the stem and the other end is rounded. The edible pit inside the shell is a lot darker than the shell and has a consistent shape.

Pecans tend to have wrinkles and ridges but these are more uniform in appearance and less random in the way that walnuts are. You’ll usually see one thin ridge down the middle which divides the two halves and each half will have their own single indentation.

What do pecans taste like?

The taste of pecans is sweet and chewy. They are usually dryer than walnuts because there isn’t as much oil in them but as they warm, the taste becomes richer and more suited for savory consumption.

This quality is what makes pecans so versatile for both sweet and savory dishes. You can use them in fruit and sweet potatoes if you’re wanting to add some extra flavor and texture in your savory meal or wanting that extra crunch in pecan pie.

Types of Pecans

There are actually 500 different types of pecans that produce nuts that have their differences in flavor, color, size and texture.

Which variation you get depends on where you purchase your pecans from. If you purchase pecans from a commercial company, you’re more likely to come across fewer kinds of pecans and they are not differentiated clearly in the packaging as they are very similar.

Large manufacturers grow pecans in a way that has a thinner shell to make it easier to crack for consumers. Wild grown pecans, however, have a thicker shell that will require more force to open.

How to Harvest Pecans

Harvesting pecans is not actually as difficult as it may seem. Make sure that you have the space so you can forage properly.

Simply look on the ground around the pecan tree and pick up the nuts. You’ll know that they are fully ripe when the husk splits open and the shell and seed drops onto the ground.

If you can see a lot of nuts on the ground, there are probably even more in the tree ready to drop. You can shake the tree lightly and see if any more fall out.

Make sure you are inspecting each pecan you pick up and check for wormholes. If a worm has managed to get through the shell then the pecan will be inedible and will have to be discarded. The same goes for pecans that have other holes and cracks as you want to be as safe as possible.

Pecans have a great advantage in that they have a long shelf life and can be frozen for up to 2 years meaning that there is no rush to finish them, especially if you have harvested a lot of them.

What is a walnut?

Like pecans, walnuts are an edible nut that are grown in walnut trees. You can have whole and opened walnuts.

You can eat them raw as a quick snack or cook them in a variety of sweet and savory dishes. They are known for their healthy nutritional content and are often viewed as one of the healthiest foods to include in a balanced diet.

Another similarity between walnuts and pecans is that walnuts are not true nuts because of the very same reason.

They are technically a drupe like fruit because of the outer husk that coats the shell and edible seed within. When a walnut has fully ripened, the husk will harden and crack open to reveal the shell.

What do walnuts look like?

Walnuts are rounder and bumpier than pecans because they have a clear ridge that goes through the middle. The shell has a wrinkly and matured appearance.

The walnut itself looks a lot like a brain rather than a pecan thanks to the bumpy and irregular surface.

It can then be broken into smaller pieces easily once the shell has been cracked open. Surprisingly, walnut flesh is a lot lighter than pecans.

When you crack the shell, there is a papery textured skin that separates the uneven surface and grooves of the walnut. A lot of people don’t like to eat the skin because they don’t like the texture but it can be eaten.

For those who wish to remove the skin, it can be a bit tricky to remove and can cause more breakages in the nut.

What do walnuts taste like?

Walnuts do not have as sweet a taste as pecans and are quite bitter and buttery in taste and texture. They have a slight crunch and an earthy bite whilst also providing that signature nutty flavor.

You’ll often see walnuts in recipes where a natural sweetener is required and are often found in granola, muffins and ice cream to name a few.

You can also use walnuts in a variety of savory dishes as well making it just as versatile as pecans.

Types of Walnuts

Unlike pecans, there are not as many kinds of walnuts as there are only two common varieties. The first is the Persian walnut which is also known as the English walnut and the second is the Black walnut.

The most popular of the two is Persian and English walnuts as their shells are not as difficult to crack. Their flavor is not as strong as Black walnuts.

On the other hand, for those who want that strong walnut taste, Black walnuts are the best option for you. Walnuts can be found and harvested around the world making them extremely accessible and popular.

They are native to Europe and Asia but states such as California and Arizona have proven to be ideal places for walnut trees to grow, especially Black walnuts.

How to Eat Walnuts

Like pecans, walnuts can be eaten in a variety of ways. The easiest way being that you can eat them raw as a healthy snack throughout the day.

You can even toast them or make a walnut butter or spread if you prefer. Always make sure you remove them from their shells before consuming or cooking. You will find that English walnuts can be cracked by hand but Black walnuts will require a sturdy nutcracker to pry the shell open.

Because of its hearty content, walnuts can be used in savory and sweet recipes and provide a thick and meaty texture to any dish.

You also have the option to use them as an ingredient or topping depending on what texture you want to give your dish. Whether you want a crunchy or chewy texture, you’ll still get that nutty flavor that compliments the majority of ingredients.

If you’re making a savory dish, it’s always advised to toast the walnut first so it is fresh and warm along with the rest of the meal. For those who have extra walnuts to use, you can make it into a sauce as it can be toasted and then pureed to create a creamy consistency.

If you’re not wanting to incorporate actual walnuts into your dishes, you can use walnut oil which will provide a hint of nutty flavor without having to spend time deshelling and cooking the walnuts before adding them. Like pecans, you can store walnuts in the freezer to preserve them for up to one year.

Nutrition Content

As mentioned earlier in the guide, pecans and walnuts have a very similar nutritional makeup because of how closely related they are.

Both are rich sources of healthy fats whilst also being low in carbohydrates and have a variety of minerals and vitamins. In this section, we’ll be delving into the specifics of the nutritional content for both.

Nutritional Content of Pecans

Pecans are very good for no matter what kind of diet that you are on.

Whether you are on the keto diet or just like to track your carb intake, you’re probably wanting to look at the nutritional content of pecans before you begin to incorporate them regularly in your diet.

The advantages of pecans are that they have a low carbohydrate count, low sugar content with a high amount of fiber which is ideal for your digestive system and metabolism.

They also have a decent amount of protein as well as healthy fats and essential vitamins and minerals.

Fat Content

If you plan on eating an entire cup of pecans in one sitting, then you’re going to fulfil your fat intake for the day.

As with anything, you need to monitor how much you are wanting to consume in a single sitting to avoid going over the recommended daily intake.

Equally, another important aspect is that you are aware of the fats that are found in pecans as not every fat is a negative factor. 

You’ll find that pecans are high in monounsaturated fats, also known as MUFAs. These are among the healthiest types of fat that you could include in your diet and have an array of benefits including improvements to blood sugar levels, blood pressure levels and balanced cholesterol levels.

Vitamin Content

Both pecans and walnuts have a high B vitamin content with pecans outperforming in thiamine which is known as vitamin B1.

Thiamine is a highly beneficial vitamin as it can help convert your food into energy which is great for those who want to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.

It helps to sustain and increase your metabolism as more energy will be transported to your cells.

Mineral Content

When it comes to the mineral content, walnuts have more benefits than pecans in the majority of cases. Pecans contain a lot of zinc which is ideal for maintaining your immune system’s health as well as other benefits.

They also contain manganese which is a trace mineral and essential for your health. You only need a small amount of it but it will help your brain and nervous systems to function properly.

Walnuts also contain manganese but pecans contain more.

Nutritional Content of Walnuts

Like pecans, walnuts also contain a variety of essential vitamins and minerals that are essential for your diet, especially if you lead an active lifestyle.

An easy health fact to know is that walnuts have many benefits for the brain while they look like little brains. They are full of healthy fats that bring the same benefits as pecans as well as vitamins that can help to reduce any inflammation and minor damage to your brain tissue. 

Walnuts also have a higher amount of protein than pecans but do have less fiber content. Both nuts help to satisfy your hunger whilst also increasing your satiety.

Fat Content

Walnuts have a high content of polyunsaturated fats which are known as PUFAs whereas pecans have a high MUFA content. PUFAs include omega fatty acids which are extremely important.

Walnuts are a great source of omega 3 fatty acids as they help to reduce any inflammation and can help to improve heart disease and diabete conditions.

They also contain omega 6 fatty acids but have the perfect balance between the two. If the balance between omegas 3 and 6 is off then it can contribute to inflammation but walnuts are a fantastic plant based source of the two.

Vitamin Content

As mentioned before, both walnuts and pecans are full of essential vitamins and minerals. When it comes to walnuts, they are a great source of vitamins A, E, K and B.

In particular, walnuts are a fantastic source of vitamin B6 which can help your metabolism to function correctly as well as crucial to creating new red blood cells and neurotransmitters.

Mineral Content

With the exception of zinc and manganese, walnuts outperform pecans when it comes to the other minerals. They are a better source of calcium, iron and potassium meaning that they will provide a healthy maintenance of your bones and blood.

They also contain magnesium, phosphorus and copper which are essential and can contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

Copper specifically is ideal because it helps to absorb iron and plays a major role in red blood cell production as well as helping to maintain your bones, connective tissue and major organs, keeping your body in optimum health.

FAQ

How do you toast pecans?

Toasting pecans is great because it brings out a richer flavor which will compliment any dish or can be eaten as a snack by themselves.

You can choose whether to add in a bit of extra fat such as melted coconut oil and then add some seasoning that is going to compliment the recipe you are making.

If you’re making a savory meal then curry blend or paprika are some popular choices and for sweet treats, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg are fantastic choices that compliment the pecans and work with a variety of different dishes.

To toast the pecans, spread them across a baking sheet that has been covered in parchment paper and then cook them for around 8 to 10 minutes in a preheated oven at 350 degrees. Make sure you shake and turn them at least once to avoid them from burning on one side and having one uncooked side.

If you don’t want to use your oven, a faster option is toasting your pecans in a pan over a medium heat for around 5 minutes. You will have to make sure you are stirring the pecans constantly to prevent them from burning.

Are pecans keto friendly?

Pecans are extremely keto friendly and are actually one of the most keto friendly nuts available. With only 20 grams of fat and 4 grams of carbohydrates in a one ounce serving,

Because they have a similar nutritional makeup, walnuts are also very keto friendly as well with the same amount of carbohydrates but a lower amount of fats with 18 grams per ounce serving.

If you’re wanting to start eating nuts for snacks as part of a balanced diet then both pecans and walnuts are great options.

Can dogs eat walnuts?

English walnuts are usually safe for dogs whereas Black walnuts can be toxic as well as the hulls so bear this in mind if you find your dog raiding your food.

However, if your dog has a little bit of walnut that has been mixed in with other foods then it shouldn’t pose a problem and there is probably no reason to panic.

If there is a walnut tree in your garden or nearby then make sure you keep an eye out for your dog in case then run off and start hunting for the nuts. This can prove to be harmful if they end up consuming the hulls and shells.

Another dangerous aspect to dogs is that walnuts that have been penetrated by worms and are now rancid can be fatal if a lot are consumed.

When it comes to pecans, dogs should be completely avoided because they contain aflatoxin which can cause long term liver damage in dogs.

If they end up eating a tiny piece by accident then nothing will probably happen but if given as a regular treat is going to do a lot more harm than good.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community.
She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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