How to peel walnuts for chiles en nogada, 19th-century nun style

My freshly peeled walnuts, mixed with my own blood, sweat and tears

Once I decided I was going to make homemade chiles en nogada this year, I became obsessed with peeling my own walnuts.

Skinless, pristine walnuts are a requirement for the nogada, the creamy sauce that covers the Poblano pepper. The sauce must be white to reflect one of the colors of the Mexican flag; walnut skin adds a brownish tint.

In both of the chiles en nogada cooking classes I’d taken, we did not peel our own walnuts because it took too long. In fact, no one I knew peeled their walnuts themselves. I kept wondering: how long did peeling walnuts actually take? If I really wanted to understand chiles en nogada, a recipe invented by ascetic Poblana nuns who scorned idleness, didn’t I sort of have to know?

It turns out nature didn’t really intend for walnuts to be peeled. First you have to remove the shell without destroying the soft walnut pulp inside. Then you have to wiggle the walnuts out of their crevices, and delicately, with the agility of threading a needle, peel back their papery skin tiny pieces at a time. When — huzzah! — one large piece of skin comes off, it’s like putting the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or peeling an orange in one long, windy strip. There is satisfaction in peeling walnuts. But it comes in trickles.

In my quest to feel like a 19th-century Mexican nun, I spent 4 1/2 hours last Friday and Saturday cracking and peeling walnuts. That was the key part I hadn’t thought of: the cracking. By the time I had enough walnuts to make nogada sauce for 10 people (roughly 4 cups of whole and halved walnuts), my thumbs were sore and covered in scrapes. My eyes hurt from squinting at pinhead-sized pieces of walnut skin. I couldn’t even take pictures with my iPhone of my pile of walnut scraps and shells, because my thumbs didn’t want to move. It was like Blackberry thumb, but worse. Walnut thumb.

I will never do it again, unless I’m only cooking for four. But who makes chiles en nogada for four?

Here are some instructions, in case you’re struck with a bout of nunliness like I was.

How to Peel Walnuts
By a Girl Who Peeled Walnuts for More Than 4 Hours, To Make a Mexican Dish In the Style of the Nuns

1. Using a small hammer (forget the nutcracker, in my opinion, as it gives an out-of-control crack instead of controlled hits here and there), crack the walnut once along the thick border that runs from pole-to-pole. Turn it over and crack in the same place on the other side.

2. Still using your hammer, crack the walnut a few times along its smooth, rounded shell. Turn it over and do the same thing again. You don’t want to crack only on one side, as that will loosen the walnuts one one side and not the other, and it’s a big bummer when that happens because one side of your walnut WILL NOT COME OUT. (Alternately, once you’re comfortable cracking, you may hit the walnut multiple times in different spots, turning as you see fit.)

3. Once you notice cracks in the outer shell, peel it away with your fingers. You should see glorious walnuts inside.

4. Carefully remove the remaining outer shell and wiggle the walnuts inside, freeing them of the tough inner somewhat T-shaped membrane. If small walnut pieces break off, that’s okay. Let them go. You don’t really need them anyway.

5. You should now have large pieces of walnut, free of their shell and their tough membrane. Using your fingernail (and your reading glasses, if you need them), gently tear a piece of the skin off. Continue until all the skin is removed. It’s sort of like peeling a garlic clove. Take pleasure in it.

6. The naked walnuts should be placed in water so they don’t turn brown. Freeze them if you’re planning on using them in more than 24 hours. Note that they WILL turn slightly beige in the freezer unless you freeze them in water. I personally find the freezing-in-water step unnecessary, as my walnut sauce still turned out very white, from both the milk and the goat cheese.

I’ll be posting my recipe in a few days, as soon as my fingers recover.

Previously on The Mija Chronicles:
Kicking off Chiles en Nogada Season in Puebla
Four Chiles, One Day: A Marathon Chiles En Nogada Tasting in Mexico City
How to Make A Proper Chile en Nogada

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22 Responses to “How to peel walnuts for chiles en nogada, 19th-century nun style”
  1. Michael Warshauer

    Lesley, you are truly dedicated. It sounds like a penance. I would never do that. I don’t even like chiles en nogada.

    More power to you.

    Don Cuevas

  2. Doug Hall

    You may want to check. I tried to share this by clicking on the Share button in the right column, but Facebook’s icon did not show up. I pasted the link instead. Not sure if the issue was on your end or mine. Fun post!

  3. William

    Lesley I love you!

    I love when you say: “If I really wanted to understand chiles en nogada, a recipe invented by ascetic Poblana nuns who scorned idleness, didn’t I sort of have to know?”

    Your metate classmate

    • Lesley

      William: :-)

  4. Norma-Platanos, Mangoes and Me!

    Impresionanate! Brave!

  5. Ofelia Rivera

    Hola Lesley

    it funny I did grow up with nuns in private convent for girls
    but never learn any cooking from them bummer, I learn most on my own adventure and from My Mom experiences in commercial kitchens, anyway to peel walnuts you can toast them a bit in oven just enough to warm the skin and use a towel to hold walnuts and rub towel back and forth and skin will come off easier. good luck next time I knew the pain of peeling.

    • Lesley

      Thanks for the tip Ofelia. My main problem wasn’t removing the skin, but cracking the nut. If I could’ve found whole, unpeeled walnuts without the shell, my life would’ve been much easier. I think they sell them at Costco here in Mexico City, but they’re not very fresh and that’s sort of a long haul for me. But yes. We have shared “the pain of peeling.” I like that phrase. :-)

      • Omid

        We, in Iran, have whole unpeeled walnuts without the shell on markets. Here they’re using kind of “walnut peeling machine” which crack the shell and take the nut out. (cuz we sort of eat lots of walnut. funny!)
        but I was wondering if there is a way to peel walnuts without toasting them?
        if you find out could you please tell me?

        • Lesley Tellez

          Hi Omid: In Mexico, when I was peeling walnuts, I did not toast them first. I cracked them and then got the nuts out the best I could, but they were raw. Hope that helps. And I’d love to hear more about this walnut peeling machine. Do you have a picture?

  6. Jon Alonzo

    I may have a great nut cracker for you. They sold them in the 70’s and 80’s and they work great for even walnuts. You may have seen one of the commercials around the holidays in the states when you were a kid. I came across one at my wife’s grandmothers house and hopefully it did not get thrown out. It is yours if I locate it.

    • Lesley

      Thanks Jon! The nutcracker I bought at Anfora in DF was pretty useless. Turned my walnuts to walnut confetti.

  7. Jon

    Well Senora Alonzo, my mother went out and found you a nut cracker. I asked her to get on it since she loves to shop resale shops in her small south Texas town. It took her less than 24 hrs.

    • Lesley

      Please tell Señora Alonzo muchas gracias! That was really sweet of her. Now… how am I going to get it? Are you in DF anytime soon? I will be in Oaxaca for Día de los Muertos, if you’ll be there then.

  8. Jon Alonzo

    I can’t be in Mexico Nov. 1 or 2nd but I’m communicating with Suzanna about some activity in Oaxaca a few days before. I told her that she needed to build an altar for me next year because it was killing me that I can’t be in Mexico for the official days of celebration. She is coming here for two weeks this month and I will send it back with her. Mom says you are welcome Mija.

  9. D Stone

    I make chiles en nogada once a year, because peeling the walnuts takes forever!! The sauce turns out so good though, it trully is worth it. Thanks for the post.

    • Lesley

      Yep, it is worth it — I’m with you on making it once a year and that’s it. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Michał

    Try that way!
    Boil walnuts for about 1 minute, then drain. (You can pour boiling water over them, as in the case of almonds – it doesn’t really matter how you do this.)

    Submerge or rinse in cold water, to prevent any further cooking and softening;

    Peel them.

    For the case of almonds, you should not rub them in order to peel. Just pinch the end – they should pop right out of their peels. If you find it taking any more effort than this, stop, don’t waste any more time on peeling, and just blanch them again. If you’ve blanched them long enough, peeling will be very easy.

    • Omid

      anybody tried this?

  11. robi

    Try leaving the open walnuts in milk for a day before you peel their skin. I just did that monday and it was quite easier. toasting them will only make them darker and change the taste.

    • Lesley

      Thanks for the tip, Robi. I’m gearing up to make chiles en nogada (my first of the season this year), so I’ll keep this in mind. Saludos!

  12. Tim

    Rick Bayless posted a chiles en nogada recipe on his site. He provided some helpful tips about removing the skins. He recomended blanching the nuts first, then shocking them in an ice bath. He also pointed out the differences between using green walnuts and mature ones; shelled and unshelled, indicating which ones are easier to peel. Wish I could remember. Check out his site. In which part/s of Mexico have you lived? My wife Angelica teaches HS Spanish and is from D.F., and has lived in Acapulco and La Paz as well. We’ve taken four trips there together. Every time we go, I study and/or cook with her family, besides my eating out adventures. I’ve made chiles en nogada with and without the skins. As painfully laborious as the skin removal was, I think it is necessary. I plan to give it another shot and I’m going to revisit the tips given by Rick Bayless. This time I, being the diehard barbecue Memphian that I am, plan to wood-smoke the pork shoulder and pair it simply with fried plaintains (in butter of course), and stuff the chiles with only those two ingredients. I’ll still top it with the walnut cream sauce, pomegranite seeds and parsley/cilantro. I’ve made the classic dish involving several fruits, nuts and candied citron, but I think the smoked pork and fried plantains will work beautifully together. The only other ingredient I’mm considering adding into the stuffing is whole toasted walnuts. As I’m typing this, I have plaintains on top of my fridge, waiting for them to turn nice and black. Can’t wait to give this a shot. Whatayathink? Tim

    • Lesley Tellez

      Tim: My mouth is watering. Love the smoked pork and plantain chile en nogada idea. You could do whole toasted walnuts, too, but pine nuts would be more of a direct tie to the original recipe. Plus I think they’re a little milder and butterier than walnuts. Of course it’s up to you. If you make the dish, send me a picture or feel free to post one here. Also, thanks for the tip on blanching the walnuts — I’ll try that next year.

      And I lived in Mexico City for four years. :-) Saludos!

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