Sunday, August 3, 2014

Kukui nuts

Around here we have a lot of kukui trees, also known as candlenut trees. As one of my numerous self-reliancy explorations, I wondered what these nuts could be used for. Checking into their historical use, I discovered that Hawaiians had used them for medicine, food (though sparingly), oil for a variety of uses, and as an oil to burn. Light was produced by both burning the nuts themselves and by extracting the oil to be burnt in lamps. 

My first thought was how to process the nuts to get the oil. I didn't find any directions on how to do this, so I began toying around with them. I processed the nuts in a variety of fashions, and finally settled on this.....
1- collect fallen nuts from trees. Can be green mature, partially dry, or dry. It doesn't seem to make much difference except that the dry ones come out of the shells easier. 
...husk them to get just the hard shelled, heart shaped nut. 
Above...this green one is three lobed, indicating that there are three nuts in this one.
I separated the three lobes. Very easy to do just using your hands but I prefer using a kitchen knife.
Again just using my fingers, I pop each nut out. The nut is encased in a loose fitting inner husk which is easy to remove.
Above is a much drier husk and nut, which falls apart very easily.
Today's collection of nuts, all dehusked and ready to be rinsed off.

2- rinse them off just to make them nicer to handle. They can be pretty slippery and stinky. 
3- boil them for five minutes. Cool. Spread out in the sun to dry. I do this in order to kill the bugs, fungi, molds. You could most likely skip this step but I prefer to do it. 
Above, washed, boiled nuts ready to be cracked open.

4- crack them open to extract the nut meat. Hitting them with a hammer works, the old "puka and a rock" method also works good. I prefer to use a hammer and puka (hole in a big rock). 
Rock with a puka (hole). 
Nut in the puka ready for cracking. 
One tap and it's cracked. 
This nut came out whole! 
Above, nutmeats in the front tray, empty shell in the round plastic bowl on the rightmost shells with nutmeat adhering to them in the left tray. I use a small kitchen knife to scrape out the nutmeat before discarding those shells. 

5- store the nut meat in the freezer until I have enough worth running the dehydrater (or dry small batches on the car dashboard if we are having bright sunny days). 
6- once the nuts are well dried, run them through the Petella oil extractor. 
7- store the oil in the frig or freezer until it is used. 

Now I'm sure that there are people who use different methods, but this works fine for me. Im told that some people roast the nuts in an oven before extracting the oil, and I suppose that's fine too. But my method works too. It gives me a nice oil that doesn't go rancid fast. If I didn't already own an oil extractor, I would try using a food processor. Just make a nut paste and let it sit. The oil should rise to the surface. If using a food processor, roasting the nuts first would make sense.

I prefer to deshell the nuts when they are super fresh because it gives me a real fresh light colored oil. In the past I use to dry the nuts for a couple weeks before cracking which resulted in mostly whole nuts but the oil was darker and had a string smell I did not like. So I tried deshelling the nuts without drying them, and discovered I liked the oil better. 

...Skin oil. Since moving to Hawaii, I seldom have problems with dry skin anymore, but occasionally I'll get some itchy, scaly patches or wind chapped skin. The oil nicely moisturturizes these areas and they seem to go away quickly. It also soothes lightly sunburned skin. I've never tried it on serious sunburn, since I avoid getting that badly burned. 
...Hair treatment. If I've been out in the tradewinds all day, my hair looks worse than usual. I'm constantly sporting the flyaway look anyway because that's what my hair does, but sunny windy days makes my hair even worse. I'll put oil on a soft hairbrush and brush it into my hair all over just before I'm due to wash it. I'll let it sit for 5-10 minutes before showering and washing my hair. That seems to make my hair behave better for awhile. 
...Wood treatment. Since the oil is non toxic, I use it in wooden spoons, cutting board, and other wooden items in the kitchen. It gives the wood a nice matt finish. 
...Soap making. I gave a supply to a local soap maker and she made some nice soaps using it. The soaps had a nice creamy lather with a good feel. 
...Crafts and jewelry. The whole kukui nuts can be buffed, sanded, polished or otherwise worked to make them quite attractive. They make nice leis and wrist bracelets. Of course that means that one cannot harvest the nut meat to make oil. 
...Fire starters. I've cracked the nuts then lit them to use as fire starters. It works but not as easy or well as wax/sawdust starters. 

I've never tried it yet, but I've read in a number of sources that Hawaiians used the oil to burn for light. One of these days I'm going to try putting some in a tiki torch and see what happens. 

Zero waste on the homestead ----  the removed husks and waste nut meat goes into the compost or simply gets dug into the garden. The cracked shells are used on any muddy spots of the garden walkways in order to give better traction and avoid slipping. 


  1. I'm sold! But I doubt a kukui tree would grow in my part of the country. Interesting post nonetheless.

  2. Does the smell ever go away?!!!

  3. Have you made a lei from them? Would love to learn how!

  4. I haven't tried making a lei yet. The nuts would need to be sanded and polished in some fashion, then dried and drilled. I know of a local crafter who works with kukui nuts occasionally, so some day I plan to ask him what he does. I've been thinking of making a bead curtain with kukui nuts to be a divider between two rooms.

  5. Thank you for this post! I don’t know why it’s so hard to find this information but it is! Kukui are everywhere and it is nice to know how to use it. I will eat some. I bought kukui poke recently and they nuts were good in it.

  6. Yes, they are edible. I know of folks who use them in poke, but also in a Hawaiian dipping sauce of some sort. I haven't tried it myself, though. I'm told that you need to be careful how much you eat at one time because Hawaiians also used this as a treatment for constipation.

  7. Hello Su, this is really informative. Thanks for posting! Question for you. After boiling and and drying, is there a step necessary to prepare them for a lei (beside polishing, of course). I'm wondering about removal of the "meat" inside the nut. I've heard some people let ants eat it.

    Do you know of any techniques (or if it's even necessary) to remove the meat from the nut before making jewelry or a beaded curtain as you mentioned above.

    Thanks so much for the info.