The best candied walnuts are oven-baked. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It’s worth knowing how to make them and there are many reasons to keep candied walnuts on hand. First off, buying them can be wildly expensive. Second, they’re infinitely snack-able. And, they have a knack for making salads, popcorn, crumbles and cheese plates extra special. Once you nail down a great base recipe and technique for candied walnuts you can tweak them a thousand different ways with different spices, herbs and flavors. Today we’re going to talk through all of this.
What Makes Good Candied Walnuts?
This is subjective, of course, but I like candied walnuts with a thick, brown sugar bark. So much coating it becomes hard to see the definition in the curves and swirls of the walnuts. The optimal size of the walnut pieces is up for debate. The merit of perfectly candied whole walnut halves is hard to argue with. It’s my preferred size for salads, snacking and the like. But, candied chopped walnuts, in smaller pieces, make a wonderful topping for scoops of ice cream, mixing into popcorn, integrating into fruit crumble and crisp toppings or adding to granola. This round I stuck with halves.
Baking Versus Skillet?
There are two common methods for making candied walnuts – in the oven or in a non-stick skillet. You will likely have success with either method, but let me tell you why I prefer baking the walnuts. Toasting walnuts in a skillet is always awkward. They’re craggy-shaped and where nuts touch the pan they either get too dark or the rest of the walnuts stay too light. It’s more challenging to know when your sugar is hot enough to set when using a skillet. It’s basically automatic in the oven, so you don’t sweat it as much. The oven envelops the walnuts in dry heat and you get much better toasting and browning. The dry heat of the oven also seems to strip the water from the egg whites while the sugar toasts resulting in crunchy snappy candied walnuts. Exactly what you want when they’ve cooled completely.
Candied Walnuts: The Technique
I’m going to call out a few important techniques and tricks here. This way you won’t breeze over them once you’re deep in the recipe.
Coating the walnuts: You are going to get in there and stir these walnuts at TWO points, for minutes at a time. Once to initially coat the walnuts with the egg whites. And again once you stir in the brown sugar mixture. Really go for it. See photo below.
Separate the walnuts for baking: Try to separate the walnuts so they don’t bake into clumps on the baking sheets.
Avoid under-baking: Use all your senses to know when to pull the candied walnuts from the oven. I look for a few things. Things should smell toasty when you open the oven. The sugar coating should be nice and deeply golden at the edges, where the coating touches the pan. You need to bake long enough that the sugars bake and will be snappy once cooled.
Let the walnuts cool completely: Let the candied walnuts cool for ten minutes or so before moving them around or taking them off the pan. It will be easier to break them up, the texture is best and they won’t burn your mouth.
There are endless ways to switch things up here. How about…
Add some zest. Avoiding the white pith, use a vegetable peeler to strip the zest off a lemon, Meyer lemon, or orange. Cut into the narrowest slivers. Stir into the sugar mixture.
Experiment with seasonings and spice blends. My rule of thumb here is…if it is good in a cookie or pie, it will likely be good here. Think gingerbread spices, pumpkin pie spice, Bahārāt, quatre épices.
Try an alternate nut. Pecans are a great substitute. Or a mix of walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts. I also like to throw some sliced almonds (skins on) into the mix.
Crunchy Chewy Candied Walnuts: Add some dried or freeze dried fruit. You can use chopped figs or dates here. Or stir in chopped dried banana and/or pineapple before baking.
Rosemary Sesame Candied Walnuts: this is a version I used to make regularly. Add 1 teaspoon chopped rosemary leaves, 1/4 cup sesame seeds and 1/3 cup chopped dates or dried figs to the brown sugar mixture.
Less Sweet: Scale back the brown sugar to 1/2 cup.
Spicy Candied Walnuts: Add a scant 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Keep the curry powder from the original recipe or leave it out.
Espresso Candied Walnuts: add 2 tablespoons finely ground espresso powder to the brown sugar. Skip curry powder.
How To Serve Candied Walnuts
I’ve thrown out some ideas up above, but there are so many great ways to serve candied walnuts. Use them:
Always in salads. Use them in kale salad, apple salad, even this wedge salad as a finishing touch.
On their own or as part of a cheese platter or (these days) a butter board.
As a topping to add crunch to blended soups.
As a component in a yogurt or granola bar for brunch.
In baked goods. Work them into your favorite quick breads and batters. Imagine a favorite gingerbread or brownies dotted with candied walnuts!
How to Store Candied Walnuts
You have some options here. But the first step is to let them cool absolutely completely. Then store in any air-tight container, like a mason jar, or re-usable baggy. Always reseal the container tightly after snacking. You can also freeze candied walnuts, in a tightly sealed container, for up to a few months.
The recipe makes a one pound batch, so you’ll have plenty to share or just keep on hand. Here’s a photo of little baggies filled with candied walnuts accented with rosemary and lots of sesame seeds. So tasty. Enjoy!