How To Open a Walnut Without a Nutcracker

I learned how to open a walnut with this cool trick this summer: Maxence and I took a little more time off than we usually do, and the three and a half weeks (three! and a half! weeks!) we afforded ourselves allowed us to embark on a mini-Tour de France to visit with friends and family: from Franche-Comté to the Vosges in the East of the country, then all sails South toward the Périgord, the Pyrenees, Toulouse, and finally Provence.

We ate like kings, as can be expected, and our luggage got heavier and heavier at every stop as we loaded up with various local treats.

The Périgord walnut wasn’t the least of them: about halfway through our trip, we happened upon La Maison de la noix, a shop entirely devoted to the brainy nut. In addition to all the walnut spreads and jams and terrines and cakes one could dream of, I loved that they sold four varieties of walnuts that you could sample — using their cool low-tech nutcracker — and compare.

“Oh, but you can just use any old knife,” she said, and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.

Most people think of the walnut as being a single thing — a walnut is a walnut is a walnut — but examining and tasting just these four side by side showed how wrong that is, as each displayed a different size and shape, and a different flavor profile, too. The one we liked best was the Lara, a jumbo walnut with a sweet, delicate flavor and very little bitterness. We filled up a big bag and went on our merry way, excited to share them with our friends at the mountain house we were renting together on the Ariège side of the Pyrenees.

But, as you might remember from my minimalist cooking kit, a nutcracker wasn’t part of my traveling arsenal, and the house kitchen — which was otherwise much better endowed than I’d feared — didn’t have one either.

When I shared my dismay with my friend Marie-Laure, she replied, “Oh, but you can just use any old knife!” and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.

Slip the tip of a knife at the seam

This trick, which reminds me of the classic oyster-shucking technique but is much less likely to lead you to the emergency room, kept us happy for the rest of our vacation, as we ate our way through two kilograms of Lara walnuts. I thought you might find it useful, too, so here goes:

How To Open a Walnut with a Simple Knife

Step 1: Take the walnut in your non-dominant hand, and hold it horizontally, so that the divide between the two halves is like the walnut’s Equator, and the fibrous, plus-shaped seam is facing you.

Walnut seam

Step 2: Pick up an ordinary but non-flimsy knife, and insert the tip of the blade horizontally into the seam (take extra care of course not to rip into your own hand; keep the sharp edge away from you and use the counter for support if that feels more comfortable).

Slip the tip of a knife at the seam

Step 3: Hold the walnut tightly and twist the knife like a key in a lock to pry the walnut open.

Cracked walnut

Step 4: Pluck out the walnut meat, breaking the shell halves further with your fingers as needed.

Extract the meat

If some of the walnut meat proves hard to dislodge, use the tip of the knife to tear off the bark-like, middle wall inside the shell: this will free the walnut meat. (Below is a walnut half with the middle wall removed.)

Walnut half

Will you give it a try? Before we part, I can’t resist sharing a photo of my vintage nutcracker, which I am now home and reunited with.

My vintage "Le Cascoc" nutcracker

My vintage “Le Cascoc” nutcracker

Join the conversation!

Have you ever used this technique? Any other tricks to share on how to make do when the appropriate utensil isn’t available?

  • Annabel Smyth

    You can also squish two walnuts together in your fist, which often succeeds in cracking one of them open. You may find whichever one of you has the largest or strongest fist will be the most successful that this. I do love walnuts, which is perhaps just as well as they may have to substitute for hazelnuts this year – did you gather that much of the crop has been wiped out due to a frost in Turkey at the wrong moment?

    • That sounds like science-fiction to me, but then I have fairly small hands. :)

  • Years ago in London, I bought a bag of Californian walnuts and there was a small, flat, heart shaped tool made of metal. a bit like this – You just stuck the pointed end into the walnut as you did with the knife, Clotilde, and twisted. It never failed, until it wore out, (it was free, after all). I’ve never seen one until I just Googled the one above.
    I usually have a lot of walnuts given to me and have great fun sitting at a table with a couple of friends and a bottle of wine, cracking them open with a nutcracker and a pestle, while one of us removes them from the shells.

    • What a cute utensil! It looks like a plectrum, you know, those plastic thingies one can play guitar with?

  • abcdefg1

    I have used a similar technique at Christmas to make what my family has called “nuts from Santa’s magic money nut tree”. With a pick, you can lever open the walnut so that it opens cleanly on its seam that goes all around the nut. Replace the walnut meat with coins or a folded dollar bills. Line a thin bead of Elmer’s glue on one side of the shell and fit the shell carefully back together again. Wipe off the excess glue on the outside of the nut. Hold closed for a minute or two. When the glue dries completely, you can’t tell that the nut has ever been opened. Place in stockings.

    • Love this! It would be fun to hide the magic walnut among others in the walnut bowl, too.

  • NotJoking

    I’ve used the knife blade and the fist technique often, but for the American black walnut I’m afraid the only thing that will work is a hammer. I’ve never yet found a nut cracker that will work on them.

    • It looks like the black walnut is native to North America, and I don’t think it’s cultivated in France so I’ve never had to deal with that particular problem. But opening any kind of walnut with a hammer sounds like a fun thing to do! :)

      • NotJoking

        Same size as the English/Persian walnut but with a very thick hard corrugated shell. The nut meats are smaller but with a distinctive flavour. I think they’re cultivated in some European nations but mainly for its wood.

        • I never knew — thank you!

          • NotJoking

            I know you lived in the States for awhile and occasionally visit there. If you ever get the chance, try black walnut ice cream. Truly uniquely delicious.

          • I will look out for that, thanks!

  • Ruth

    Hi, Love hearing about your summer travels as we endure winter down under. the sun is shining today though! I was shown to crack walnuts by holding two in your hand & squeezing tightly together. It works reasonably well but you do find the odd hard nut that defies your efforts. Will try our knife techniques.Opening walnuts reminds me of my mother who was a wonderful baker & would only bake with freshly opened walnuts!

    • I’ll have to try that, though the Laras are so big I’d have trouble fitting two in my hand! And your mother was a wise baker: I, too, find walnuts go rancid so quickly you’re much better off cracking them just before using.

  • Cheryl

    Does anyone have suggestions on cracking black walnuts. These are supposed to be delicious but I’ve never been able to taste them. I could not crack them open with my strongest nutcracker.

    • Johnna Quick

      Cheryl, we use hammers to break into our black walnuts. Growing up, we used a small area of garage floor, covered it with sheets of newspaper to minimize mess, and placed the walnuts in a bag. We cracked them with the hammer through the bag, and it caught the pieces. Don’t hit them too hard or you will smash the flavorful meats into oblivion, but it is an easy way to crack an entire bag then you can head inside to pick apart your nuts.

      • Thanks for responding to Cheryl, Johnna! Do you forage for black walnuts, or have your own tree, or are they sold locally?

        • Johnna Quick

          I live in the Midwest US, so they grow locally. We have several trees in our backyard, plus lots of the neighbors are very happy to have us help pick up the walnuts in their yards in the fall. It was a great way to make money when I was young, but as an adult I really enjoy all of the ways I can cook with black walnuts!

          • Lovely! Do they have uses different from ordinary walnuts?

          • Johnna Quick

            Black walnuts are basically the same, but with a more concentrated, intense flavor. They can be bitter when they are raw, but they are my favorite choice for recipes like banana nut bread.

          • That sounds great!

    • Paul Eggermann

      I crack open hickory nuts, which are even harder than black walnuts, using a brick and a hammer. I cut open one side of a large cardboard box, place the box on a concrete floor, lay the cut side out flat, place the brick on the bottom crease on the flap, put a nut on the brick and give it a sharp blow with the hammer. The box captures all the pieces and makes cleaning up a snap. Hickory nuts are impossible to get the meats out of so i use them to make ice cream and flavored butters.

      • Thanks for sharing your technique, Paul! I love that the native nut landscape is so different in North America — I don’t think I’ve ever had a hickory nut myself.

  • Shivangni

    Great, simple technique. We use either pestle or hammer, as kids we used to simply crack them by jamming them in the door hinges and closing the door. Mum never caught us (thank God). Will definitely try this technique this winter

    • Ha! Love the door hinge technique. It can’t be good for the door or the kids’ fingers if they get caught, but it must be fun!

  • I’ve inherited strong German hands from my mother, and she taught me how to break open walnuts by crushing two in my fist!

  • This is exactly how I learned to open walnuts from my host mother in Ukraine. So easy!

    • You must have learned tons by spending time with a family in Ukraine. Any particular highlights beyond the walnut-opening?

      • Hmm…lots! But in particular that the all-natural approach — growing and eating what you grow, including chickens/pigs — is great. And that there are so many ways you can eat cabbage!

  • My Dad used to crack nuts closing a door on them (hard to explain, but you wedge the nut in the frame of the door and close it). Messy. but efficient… BTW, just wanted to tell you I got your new book today, Kindle version… I am looking forward to surfing through tonight!!!!!

    • Thank you Sally, I hope you enjoy the book! ^^

    • 54beta

      Me Too! Our door will never be the same again…..

  • Vi

    I like using a mortar and pestle (a wooden one for this task usually) that is on the smaller side. Once you get a feel for the amount of force you need (which is not a lot) you can crack most walnuts in half in one blow. In case you use too much force the mortar keeps the shell bits from flying out and making a mess.

  • I know that I’ve mentioned this before, it’s one of may favourite events of the year, but at the Chestnut Fair in Laguepie, in the Tarn & Garonne (82), in South West France, there is always an exhbition of different types of walnuts, chestnuts, apples, pears, quinces and wild mushrooms, with expert growers on hand to answer questions and demonstrate how to graft fruit trees. There are numerous walnuts, some of which are huge and even though I have large hands, I doubt I’d be able to crush two in one hand. The first black walnut tree I found was in the Aveyron, when I was out walking with friends. I brought one or two nuts home with me, but never managed to open them. I think I’ve seen a plantation of them, near Gaillac in the Tarn (81), which were magnificent trees, but looked as if they were being grown for wood, rather than nuts.

    • Thank you for the details and the photo! I hope I get to visit that fair some day, I remember you mentioning it before and it sounds like a wonderful event. I assume it is held in the fall?

  • Now the question is… how can you make a walnut that doesn’t burn the roof of your mouth. I’m fine if they’re cooked in things, but raw out of the shell I can only eat a few before I feel like I have a canker sore…

    • Ah, unfortunately, I think it’s a personal sensitivity thing. A friend of mine gets sores in her mouth from eating walnuts, and also hard cheeses. It’s almost like a mild allergy, and I don’t know if there’s a fix.

  • Carol Gillott

    Thank you! This is terrific information Clotilde. So many Paris food fairs have walnuts for about 3€ a kilo and I love them but am always at a loss how to open the shells easily.
    Sept 19-21 the Sud-Ouest fête is at quai de Montebello. A don’t miss.
    For sure there will be walnuts there among other delicacies.

  • haridsv

    Thank you so much, it worked great! I am able to remove the meat carefully so that the halves close perfectly again. My wife is now after them for craft ideas :)

  • Great Stone Face

    I use the screwdriver blade on my Swiss Army Knife to pry open walnuts.

    • Cool trick! How many different tools do you have on your Swiss Army knife?

  • Linda

    You don’t even need a nutcracker or a knife either for that matter. Just hold two walnuts together in the palm of your hand and squeeze together. The nut farthest away from your palm will crack very easily. This makes a great party trick too. My father-in-law and I each hid a nut in our hand and cracked walnuts seemingly one at a time just with our bare hands and my brother-in-law couldn’t figure out how his elderly father and his sister-in-law could crack the nuts but he with his big strong hands couldn’t. We were just about rolling on the ground laughing by the time we finally showed him our trick. For some reason he didn’t think we were as funny as we thought we were. All kidding aside though, the trick works great to open walnuts easily. You don’t have to squeeze very hard to make it work.

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