What Are Hybrid Hazelnuts, and Why Are Chefs Obsessed with Them?
These buttery, super-sustainable nuts are showing up at the country's best restaurants.
The hazelnut pie at Jersey City’s Razza Pizza Artigianale is nothing short of a masterpiece. Housemade mozzarella, ricotta, and a drizzle of local honey bring out the natural sweetness of the roughly chopped nuts.
Chef Dan Richer built that pie, dubbed Project Hazelnut, around locally grown hazelnuts—the luscious and flavorful result of decades of breeding and research. In a country that too often associates the artificial flavor of hazelnut coffee with what should be a sweet and buttery seed, it may sound odd that decades of work have gone into pioneering the science for the perfect, blight-resistant hazelnut tree.
But the Hybrid Hazelnut Consortium, led by scientists at Arbor Day Foundation, Nebraska Forest Service, Oregon State University, and Rutgers University (the source of Richer’s yearly 400-pound crop), is helping many Americans understand what quality hazelnuts should taste like—beyond Nutella.
If all goes according to plan, the project could be a huge boon to the environment and American farmers who have been struggling with below-average net income for the fifth consecutive year. The $520 million hazelnut market is expected to grow another 10 percent in the next five years.
“Demand for hazelnuts is going up and up and up, supply is not meeting that demand,” said Dr. Thomas Molnar of Rutgers University, one of the researchers working on the project.
These specially-bred hazelnuts are what is known as a low-input crop, which means that they can grow without irrigation, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides on marginal land. They thrive in poor-quality soil that is virtually useless for farming, a win-win for farmers and promoters of local, sustainable agriculture.
“When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” says Richer, who is dedicated to supporting New Jersey’s nascent commercial hazelnut industry. “It’s not just on the menu because it’s a delicious pizza; there’s a bigger mission and conversation.”
This fall, they’re going to be a lot easier to taste.
The Lincoln, Nebraska bean-to-bar chocolate factory Sweet Minou is about to get its first batch from the Nebraska Forest Service and University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s research farm. Owner Rebecca Ankenbrand plans to incorporate her 20-pound lot into gianduja, essentially an artisanal version of Nutella, traditional chocolate and hazelnut confections like Ferrero-Rochers, and single-origin bars made from Guatemala Cahabón 70% cacao dark chocolate.
“The chocolate has a fruity depth to it with fresh grape flavors and red wine,” said Ankenbrand. “It melds together really nicely with the hazelnuts.”
At Shane Confectionery in Philadelphia, head chocolate maker Kevin Paschall will also be releasing a gianduja, as well as hazelnut praline and a riff on traditional Piedmontese Giandotto, a sail-shaped truffle filled with the chocolately-hazelnut spread.
“They have a really pronounced explosion of nuttiness off the bat and accept a wide range of roasts," said Paschall. “As soon as we pick them up, we’re going to dial in the specific roast for this spread.” Both Shane and Sweet Minou aim to have the hazelnut products available for mail-order on their websites in time for the holidays.
Because the nuts are so flavorful and fresh, many of the chefs who are clamoring for them this season are doing what Richer is: highlighting their natural sweetness in savory dishes. Within the next few weeks, Rutgers hazelnuts will be in two or three different menu items at Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel.
Osteria Francescana alum Stefano Secchi of Rezdôra has been clamoring for his stash, said forager Tama Matsuoka Wong of Meadows and More.
“Most chefs are not using for pastry because it’s too good for pastry,” said Wong. “It’s being treated much more in Ottolenghi-style where hazelnut is with something like a salad, but it adds this amazing thing to it.”
Wong has received some Rutgers seedlings to plant on her property. While she still plans to distribute hazelnuts for Rutgers, she hopes to have her own nuts in about three years.
The sustainable nuts could be a boon to local agriculture and the next big commodity crop, potentially paving the way for the United States to become a world leader in hazelnut production. Right now, 99-percent of the U.S. hazelnut crop is grown in Oregon’s temperate Willamette Valley. Representing just three to five percent of theworld hazelnut crop, those nuts (60-percent of which get shipped straight to China) brought in an average of nearly $63 million for local farmers over the past three years. Researchers are attempting to expand the nut’s growing region across large swaths of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic through breeding.
Molnar of Rutgers University has been cross-breeding European hazelnut trees that are resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight, a fungal disease that wiped out earlier attempts to develop a commercial hazelnut industry in the eastern United States (the crop he’s currently selling to chefs). And he’s been working with the consortium to hybridize the European hazelnuts, revered for their large, high-quality nuts, with smaller, thick-shelled wild American hazelnuts. Combined together, these disease-resistant hybrids can withstand the frigid winters of the Midwest and require very little water to survive.
That means fewer chemicals in the soil and less exposure for farmworkers. The perennial crops don’t require tilling every season, which improves soil quality. Four new hazelnut varieties will be released to farmers starting early next year. Consumers on the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest will start to see those local nuts for sale or on menus in three to five years.
If this year’s anticipation is any sign of things to come, there’s no doubt chefs and chocolatiers will be anxiously awaiting the crop. But Molnar and the other researchers want the industry (and the actual size of the nuts) to get large enough to support the needs of major companies like Ferrero-Rocher.
There’s also hopes that the nuts could produce gluten-free flours and an array of culinary oils.
Adam Howard, director of farm operations at Arbor Day Farms, envisions the oil-rich nut as a replacement for high-input corn and soybeans to produce biodiesel.
“You’ve got to think big when you do things like this,” said Howard. “The corn business didn’t start overnight and these hazelnuts haven’t come about overnight.”
Answering the question of whether or not the hazelnut industry can reach the point of transforming the United States farming system is still a long way off. For now, one thing is certain: people love them on Razza’s pizza.