Did you know that you can’t buy cashews in the shell? They are always sold pre-shelled and for a good reason! Read on to find out why cashews are different from other culinary nuts and why it’s best not to handle them in their shells.
Why Are Cashews Sold Without the Shell?
Cashews as we know them are not actually nuts at all, they’re the seeds of a drupe. What’s a drupe? It’s a type of fruit, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.
The cashew tree is in the same family as poison ivy and produces a similar oil. The reason cashews are sold pre-shelled is that unlike true nuts, such as hazelnuts that form a hard wall directly around the seed, cashew shells have a lining that is filled with fluid. This fluid is caustic and can cause burns or rashes to your skin. The part that we consider a “nut” is held between two layers of hard shell containing cardol and anacardic acid – neither of which you want to touch!
So, if cashews are embedded in a potentially painful and poisonous plant, how do they end up at the grocery store? Let’s take a look at how a cashew grows and the amount of work it takes to get a single culinary nut.
How Cashews Grow
As I mentioned, cashews are drupes. A drupe is a stone fruit like a peach or a plum. They have a soft fleshy exterior and a pit with a seed inside. The cashew tree bears cashew apples which look like a fruit, but are actually an “accessory fruit.” This just means that the cashew apple doesn’t grow from the ovary tissue like other fruits. The part that we consider to be a cashew nut is actually a seed inside the pit of the fruit which grows from the bottom of the apple.
Take a look at this image of a cashew on the tree. The fruit component at the top is the cashew apple, it’s edible, but delicate and perishes quickly. The tasty cashew nut is buried in the kidney-shaped drupe growing at the bottom.
In order to get the cashew nut… er, rather cashew seed, the drupe hanging from the bottom must be harvested, separated from the apple, opened to remove the fluid, and then the seed must be heated in order to destroy the toxins. Even “raw” cashews in the store have been heat-treated to remove the toxic oils, they just haven’t been roasted.
So, the next time you grab a handful of cashews, keep in mind that each one of those simple looking nuts is not a nut at all – it’s a seed that came from deep inside a drupe filled with toxic fluid, hanging from the bottom of a fake fruit, and had to be harvested and heat treated all before it could safely make its way to your mouth.
Tasty, hard to get, potentially dangerous, but ultimately good for you? Cashews are one impressive snack.
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