What Are the Differences in Pecan Varieties?
Pecans are an incredibly versatile type of nut that you’ll find in baked goods and recipes and as a right-out-of-the-bag snack. But no two varieties are the same, and some are better suited to certain purposes than others. Some are sweet, and some are savory. Some have paper-thin shells, and others are thicker. Whatever form they take, pecans are full of health benefits, with the highest antioxidant capacity of any nut and a high amount of unsaturated fats.
Let’s take a look at the many types of pecans available and how they compare.
How Many Types of Pecans Are There?
Many people think pecans are just pecans, but there are actually over 1,000 varieties of this tasty nut. They’re the only major tree nut native to North America and do not grow naturally anywhere else in the world! The pecan’s name comes from the Native Americans who relied on these nuts for nutrition and later traded them with European settlers. The word “pecan” comes from an Algonquian word that means “a nut too hard to crack by hand.” Not sure how to pronounce Pecan? Here’s an overview of how to pronounce the word pecan.
Types of Pecans and Pecan Varieties
Nowadays, you can choose pecan types cultivated for their flavor, shell thickness and other qualities. One of the easiest ways to differentiate between pecan varieties is to look at the nut’s size and its shell’s thickness. A native pecan often has thicker shells and smaller nuts, while improved varieties tend to have more delicate shells and larger nuts.
Another clue in identifying different pecan varieties is the nut shape and kernel appearance. Some pecans are round, while others are football-shaped. Kernel appearance includes the shell’s texture and the depth and width of its grooves.
Pecan varieties can also differ due to the pecan tree itself. The growing climate plays a role here. Pecan trees thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 6 through 9. While these trees can also live in zone 5, they will not produce nuts there. Regions with warm, lengthy growing seasons and few nighttime temperature drops provide the ideal climate for pecan production.
Now that you know what qualities make pecan tree varieties different, let’s explore just a taste of the different types of pecans available
1. Cape Fear Pecans
Cape Fear pecans are native to North Carolina. These light-colored nuts are oval or oblong-shaped, with a medium-thin shell that’s easy to crack and reveals a meaty nut. This somewhat new variety offers a buttery, nutty profile that’s perfect for baking. The robust flavor can happily co-exist with other ingredients that might overwhelm more delicate flavors. Try it in a classic pecan pie to see it in action!
2. Schley Pecans
With their high oil content and thin shells, Schley pecans have a delightful flavor and crack easily. Their oily nature makes them a good pick for nut flours or nut oils, which work well in cold food applications like vinaigrettes and soups. This variety of pecan was the parent of many modern species, such as Shawnee, Sioux and perhaps Mahan.
Schley pecans are one of the varieties we use here at Pecan Nation, and many people like them for their wonderful, intense flavor.
3. Desirable Pecans
Desirable pecans are medium-large pecans with a soft shell that makes them easy to crack. They can get so big that they’re also called a “mammoth” pecan. They have a meaty inside packed with flavor, and they’re great for roasting. Desirable pecans are one of the top pecan varieties in the Southeastern U.S. and ripen in late October and early November.
4. Mahan Pecans
Mahan pecans are very large nuts with soft shells. The Mahan pecan tree produces a lot of nuts, prefers dry climates with warm winters and ripens from the middle to end of November. These nuts tend to be rich in flavor, making them a good fit for baked goods and straight-up snacking. If you need whole nuts, such as for decorating a dessert, the large Mahan variety works well and can stand up to competing flavors.
5. Hican Pecans
The Hican pecan is a hybrid of Mahan and Hickory varieties. This rare nut has a strong hickory taste. The tree fares slightly better in the cold than some other pecan species.
6. Moreland Pecans
Moreland pecans originate from Louisiana, and their shells have a medium thickness. This pecan tree, which ripens in mid-October, is highly disease-resistant and prolific, producing many nuts. These nuts have a high oil content that provides an extra-rich flavor. They’re some of the most common pecans on the market today.
7. Osage Pecans
The Osage pecan is small or medium in size, with an oval shape. These pecans grow best in the northern U.S. and ripen during the beginning of September. The Osage pecan tree is highly disease-resistant, making it productive.
8. Paper-Shell Pecans
As their name suggests, paper-shell pecans have thin shells you can crack without a nutcracker. This accessible species is often sweeter than other pecans.
9. Farley Pecans
Farley pecans are another variety we use at Pecan Nation. They have a rich flavor and release easily from their shell. The tree matures relatively late in the season and is disease-resistant, but the nuts’ thinner shells make them susceptible to damage from birds and other animals.
Farley pecans are on the rarer side, but they offer sweetness and crunch. They work well with different seasonings and can add some texture to dishes like salads. Many people like to use the grooves of the Farley pecan to hold onto flavorful pockets of seasonings like salt, cinnamon and sugar.
10. Stuart Pecans
The Stuart pecan has a thicker shell than typical paper-shell pecans. This variety has generously sized nuts and is one of the most common pecan species. It has a classic taste with a slight sweetness and firm texture, pairing well with savory recipes like cheese balls and charcuterie boards.
Stuart pecans grow well farther north than other pecan types. However, the Stuart tree takes eight to 10 years before it can bear any nuts.
11. Elliot Pecans
Elliot pecans are smaller, smooth and have a teardrop shape and a medium-thick shell. The trees can grow as tall as 70 to 100 feet, making them one of the largest pecan tree varieties. This species grows well, too, offering excellent quality, flavor and consistency.
The nut itself has a buttery, rich flavor with a subtle hint of hickory. Elliot pecans are an excellent snacking variety when eaten on their own, but they’re also ideal for pies and other sweets. They offer a luxurious taste in each bite.
12. Zinner Pecans
Zinner pecans are a newer species, offering excellent quality and consistency. These nuts are moderately sized with a thin shell. They have an oily but rich flavor.
13. Avalon Pecans
Another relatively new variety, Avalon pecan trees offer high yields, consistency and exceptional scab resistance, which makes them easier to grow than some other species, especially in humid regions. The nuts have an oblong shape and an average size. Their thin shells break open to reveal bright golden kernels.
14. Candy Pecans
Candy pecans are quite small, but as the name implies, you can find them used for making candy and confections. These small-but-mighty pecans offer a great taste and appearance. Many grade as fancy, too. The trees are attractive, with a full, lush canopy that would look good in a backyard.
15. Caddo Pecans
Rounding out our list is the Caddo pecan. The trees are particularly prolific and offer consistent yields over time. The pecans themselves are on the smaller side with a football shape, and the kernels are a nice gold. They have rich flavor and high oil content, similar to Elliot pecans, but with a thinner shell.
What Are the Best Pecans for Baking?
If you’re cooking or baking, the best pecan variety depends on what you are aiming for with flavor, size or color. As you now know, there is a lot of variety among pecan species, so some of your decision will come down to personal preference. However, some home cooks prefer to use specific pecan varieties in the kitchen.
The Stuart pecan, also known as an all-purpose pecan, is excellent for chopping and mixing into many different recipes. The Cape Fear pecan has a mild flavor and is popular in the confection industry.
The Desirable pecan is ideal for decorating dishes due to its large size. It is also the most readily available pecan variety, so you can probably find it on the shelves of your favorite grocery store. The Desirable pecan cooks and freezes well, making it a typical commercial baking choice.
Paper-shell pecans make a convenient snack since they are easy to crack open. Paper-shell pecans are also ideal for baking because they are sweet. The best way to discover which pecan variety you like best is to try them all!
If you hope to grow pecans at home, the best species depends on your growing climate and the traits you desire most. If you live in a more humid or arid area, you may not have the optimal conditions to grow specific pecan varieties. You must also consider when you would like to harvest, how many pecans you want to grow per tree and how big you want the nuts to be. Deciding to grow pecans can take some research, but will hopefully lead to a bountiful harvest.
How to Identify Pecan Trees
With so many different types of pecans, it stands to reason that they grow on highly varied trees. Identifying a pecan tree can be tricky, but if you know what to look for, you can figure out what’s growing on those branches.
Generally speaking, pecan trees are tall — boasting an average height of about 70 feet — with long, distinct-looking leaflets. The leaves themselves reach almost two feet long and have 17 small leaflets branching off from the center. The distinctive part comes from their curved shape, reminiscent of a sickle, in which the leaflets are slightly bowed at the tips.
Pecan trees tend to stick together, so a lone tree is less likely to be a pecan tree. More commonly, you’ll see at least a trio of pecan trees.
Knowing how to identify pecan tree varieties is a little trickier, especially if you’re looking at the tree when it isn’t producing any nuts. Take a look at the following characteristics to see if you can find any clues:
- Location: Some varieties grow best or are more popular in certain areas of the country. Mahan and Desirable pecans, for example, are big in the Southeast, while Stuart pecans are one of the few varieties you might find more north.
- Pollinators: Many pecan tree varieties work well with certain other species that act as complementary pollinators. For example, Stuart is a Type II pollinator, while Desirable is a Type I pollinator. If you find a Type I pecan tree, you might find a Type II close by and vice versa.
- Nut size and shape: If you have a pecan available, it can tell you what variety of tree you’re looking at. Some are very distinct, like the round Burkett pecan or the oblong Schley pecan. Its size can also give you a clue. Varieties like Osage and Elliot pecans tend to be smaller, while Mahan, Desirable and Summer pecans are some of the largest.
- Kernal size and texture: Kernels may take on different colors and textures. Cape Fear pecans, for example, have a lovely light gold color. Some varieties have especially wrinkled or smooth textures.