There’s a classic zinger a few long-time Southerners dish out from time to time around the dinner table (typically after a few glasses of bourbon) when the topic of pecans and their proper pronunciation comes up. A “puh-kahn” is a nut, they say; a “pee-kan” is what you keep by your bed in case you need to get up in the middle of the night. Wherever you stand on the linguistic discussion, there’s no debate that pecans are a mainstay of Southern cuisine in interpretations both sweet and savory. After all, about a third of the nation’s pecans come from Georgia, where a typical annual harvest yields enough to make about 176 million pecan pies.
Nowadays, Southern pecan lovers are thinking outside pralines and pie tins, using the nut in everything from cooking oils to nut milks and cocktail syrups. In Mississippi, pecans have even made a cameo in craft beer. Here are a handful of quintessential pecan recipes running the gamut from sweet to savory, all worth preparing in your own kitchen whether you’re prepping cocktail hour hors d'oeuvres or simply in the mood for an ultra-decadent dessert.
Could there be a pairing more deeply Southern than the combination of pecans and bourbon? Candied pecans are as Southern as it gets, but we like the idea of taking it one step further and adding whiskey to the mix, as Marvin Gapultos does in his sticky-sweet recipe for bourbon old fashioned-glazed pecans. Cocktail lovers will appreciate the nod to a classic, with dried cherries and a touch of orange zest adding complexity.
Perhaps the granddaddy of classic Southern pecan recipes comes, naturally, laden with sugar, butter and pie crust. Those who grew up in a Southern household are likely quite familiar with the rather unforgettable rich texture (and tooth-aching sweetness) of a classic homemade pecan pie, Karo corn syrup and all. Most modern-day forms of the recipe still call for corn syrup, but if you’d rather skip that, Smitten Kitchen’s version is the way to go: she uses cane sugar syrup (or treacle, as it’s called in the U.K.) and dark brown sugar for depth and decadence.
While most pecan-centric recipes tend to fall on the sweet side of the spectrum, there are a few savory applications in which pecans truly shine. One of those is trout. This pan-seared Georgia trout recipe from our dear friend, Southern chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis, doubles down on the combination, using pecans as both crust and sauce (made by adding the nuts to browned butter). Note: while the trout recipe is delicious, Willis’s quick pecan brown butter method is a good one to have in your rotation — it can dress up anything from chicken to roasted root vegetables.
Roasted And Spiced Pecans
Dead-simple to make, with ingredients you probably already have in the pantry, these are a perfect snack to whip up to keep guests occupied — I know, because it’s exactly how my mother strategized her hostessing duties for our big family Thanksgiving dinners every year. Sending out a bowl of these buys the host a little extra time in the kitchen while keeping hunger at bay for guests. The crispy, salty-spicy-sweet combination makes them surprisingly hard to stop eating (not to mention, they pair perfectly with a cold beer).
Recipes for spiced pecans abound, but my mother’s version — which probably originated from an amalgam of family recipes, spiral-bound community cookbooks and years of trial and error — is fool-proof.
- 1 lb. pecans, shelled
- 3-4 tablespoons of butter
- 3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Take a pound of pecans and spread them out on a baking sheet, then toast in a 300-degree oven. This part requires a watchful eye, because pecans are quick to burn. Before they’re completely toasted, remove the sheet from the oven and top with a few tablespoons of butter. Return to oven to melt butter and continue toasting. Stir to evenly coat nuts. Remove from oven when toasted and place on brown grocery bags to drain. Salt the nuts while they’re still warm — if you’re feeling fancy, you can also add a dash of cinnamon, cayenne pepper or cumin (or a combination of the above) to taste. The brown bag absorbs the butter in the least messy way possible.
Pecan Cheese Ball
Oh, the glory of the cheese ball, unsuspecting star of cocktail parties and holiday gatherings, low-maintenance blessing to busy hosts and hostesses, and eternal crowd-pleaser. A few decades ago, a recipe for these might simply involve chopping up a handful of pecans, mixing them with some form of store-bought processed cheese (pimento or cream, most likely), perhaps tossing in a bit of black pepper, and calling it a day. Fortunately, recipes like this one from North Carolina chef Vivian Howard (author of Deep Run Roots) pay homage to this humble snack while simultaneously elevating it just a touch above standard Betty Crocker fare with blue cheese, dates, goat cheese and the salty crunch of roasted pecans.