"Ever eat a pine tree?". That infamous quote from Euell Gibbons during a Grape Nuts commercial (there's a lot of them on You Tube now and some are hilarious) has some truth to it.
Sure, you can make tea (mostly I see it done with the soft needles of Easter White Pine) from needles, bark bread from the inner cambium (a novelty) or even a powder from dried needles (mostly for adventurous chefs) but pine cones, specifically young, meristematic/tender ones can be eaten, and are traditionally used in the Caucuses and Russia in a preserve known as Varenye, sometimes called pine cone jam, or pine cone honey.
translating basically to something cooked in syrup, varenye is similar to Japanese kinpira in that it refers to a cooking technique rather than a dish made with a specific ingredient.
If you google varenye, what you'll probably see are different ingredients (mostly fruit and berries) simmered in sugar syrup to preserve them. Cooking fruit in sugar is nothing too new or interesting to me, and I think most Americans who read this blog and make their own preserves will agree.
Pine cone jam is a completely different thing though, and it's fascinating. For the most basic preserve, all you do is cook pine cones with sugar and water in equal proportions, reducing them down to a thick syrup.
One thing I find really interesting about the cone is that when cooked with sugar they almost seem to add a sort of thickening quality to the syrup similar to weak pectin, which helps set to a thick, jammy substance with a brilliant sheen.
I made the traditional sugar-only varenye every which way, and it's ok, but it will taste very resinous and strong. The powerful resinous flavor is probably part of the reason you don't see pine cone jam spread on buttered toast in the cultures where it's traditionally made, rather, the preserve is taken medicinally, or so I've read.
I'm sure anything with such a strong taste probably has some sort of medicinal qualities, but I don't cover medicinal anything here for a number of reasons, so your on your own for divining those kinds of things.
Over time I worked on a few ideas for curbing the strong taste of the pine cones, and came up with a hybrid method for making the preserve I think you'll really find worth trying. Instead of just cooking in sugar syrup, I blanch the pine cones, then simmer them in pure, unfiltered apple cider.
As the cider reduces, the cones imbue it with flavor, and the natural sugars concentrate into a fantastic preserve in their own right, the traditional, addictively delicious, 100% forest product known as apple molasses.
If you find the pine cone preserves a bit too strong for you, try making apple cider molasses all by itself-just a half gallon will make enough to garnish a few meals, and it's really wonderful stuff.
It'd be remiss of me to not mention that I owe a debt to my friend, former chef and mentor Chef Lenny Russo for introducing me to the syrupy apple essence, he's kind of a genius.
When to harvest the cones
This is super important. You're looking for a very specific stage of growth here: about the size of a grown adults pinky nail.
Any larger and the cones will be a bit too strong for my taste and they should be cut in half, which also means they'll be slightly desiccated by the preservation and not as picturesque as you see here.
To compound matters, at the stage of small growth you want, pine cones (at least the Pinus resinosum cones I prefer for this) seem to not be as bountiful as they will be a few weeks into the growing season.
It's also important to make sure that you have living cones here, as old and aborted cones from the previous season can fool newbs, and a year-old, dry, crusty pine cone will taste exactly like what it sounds like. You want small young pine cones so young enough that they give between your fingers when pressed.
I live up north, and this post is going to find a lot of you with your pine trees at a stage too far to make the jam here, but don't worry. If you only have green, or slightly larger pine cones, those are actually even more versatile than the young, tiny cones I cook with here.
One of the products you can make with green pine cones is one of the finest things that will ever pass your lips (tradtional Italian mugolio or pine cone syrup). If you don't have pine cones, check for some spruce trees and use the young tips to make spruce tip syrup.
This is a potent, strong-tasting preserve. Eaten by itself it can be too much for most. My advice, after working with it for a few years is to pair it with creamy, fatty things that help cut the richness. Goat cheese in a spreadable form is great, but some brie or creme fraiche can work too.
Pine Cone-Cider Jam
- ½ gallon unfiltered apple juice or apple cider The darkest, most unprocessed you can find, preferably will give the darkest syrup. If you want a higher proportion of syrup to pine cones, use ¾ gal instead of half.
- ¼ inch piece of cinnamon
- 2 cloves
- ¼ cup young pine cones
- Rinse the pine cones to remove any debris. Bring a few cups of water to a boil and blanch the pine cones for 1-2 minutes, remove and reserve.
- In a 1 gallon pot with high sides about 8-10 inches in diameter, combine the cider, bouquet of warm spices, pinch of salt, and pine cones, bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and set a timer for 1 hour while you do something else.
- After an hour, check on the reduction and gauge how much time it will take to reduce down to about 1.5 cups or so, at which point you should baby it, watching it carefully to make sure the consistency is to your liking.
- Continue reducing at a brisk simmer until the bubbles start to increase in size and threaten to creep up the sides of the pan. Referring to the video will be helpful here.
- When the bubbles are large and the mixture is reduced to the consistency of warm honey, transfer the cones and their syrup to a jar, allow to cool uncovered for 30 minutes, then put a jar with a tight-fitting lid like a mason jar and refrigerate.
- Once chilled, inspect the thickness of your jam. If it seems too thick/100 percent pine cones, transfer to a bowl, warm it over a pot of simmering water and thin it with a splash 1T of cider, mix well, then put back in the jar and refrigerate again, which will refresh the consistency.
- Kept in the fridge with the lid screwed on tight it will last for a couple months.
I just make a batch and it was delicious! How long will the picked baby pine cones last before I cook them? Can I store them for a few days or weeks ?
Raw, baby pincones can be kept in the fridge where they'll last for a couple weeks. Vacuum sealed and frozen, they'll stay for years.
Alan, which pine tree varieties are safe for picking edible green pine cones for this recipe? I live in Reno and I don’t know what pine trees we have that are safe to pick the pine cones to make mugolio. Do you know?
All pinus should be edible or at least harmless, especially as you're not consuming the physical cones in mugolio. People have used so many different types I've lost count now. Just to clarify this recipe you're commenting on is different than mugolio.
I love how this came out, so tasty. I added a few juniper berries to it as well. The color is magical and I was surprised at how sweet/rich it is. A little goes a long way.
Thanks Linda. Yes, a little goes a long way. It's often used as a medicinal.
Help! It's watery. Do I need to add sugar?
No sugar. Watching the video will be helpful here, and the mixture will set better if you leave it overnight.
Thanks Alan. It did finally set. It is very sweet so I'm glad I held off on a panicked addition of sugar. I'm not a huge fan of the cloves and cinnamon since they seem to mask the pine somewhat. They're also reminiscent of Christmas -- of dreaded winter....which I desperately hoping to put behind me! Have you encountered different flavor profiles for this recipe? I'm thinking star anise and black pepper ? Any thoughts?
Hi there, does it matter what type of pine cones? And I've seen some more green in color and some brown like yours. What's best or different? I have a huge pine tree in my backyard and would love to forage from it if possible. Just want to make sure it's safe. Also, I've seen another gal use sugar and ferment for 6 months and then boil and consume. What method is best? Thanks for sharing!
For this you want the tiniest pine cones the size of a pinky nail. Pinus resinosum is the best I've worked with, but many others can be used.
Can I substitute pinyon cones for pine cones?
Nor a lot of pines around here but lots of pinyons...
Probably if they're at a very young stage of growth similar to what I illustrate here. Other conifer cones (cedar cones) are also used.
Really great recipe! I've always disliked pine cone varenye because it tastes like extremely bitter pine resin but this recipe is just right. All the pines where I live are huge white pines and we only see the cones when they're a couple years old, lying on the ground. Is there a way that doesn't involve climbing ten stories to pick them?
Thanks Nickolay, yes, there is a reason I don't have a recipe for the very traditional varenye-I find it a bit too piney too. The cider gives it a nice balance. As far as reaching the cones, I avoid red pines in my area that have had their lower branches trimmed, I look for trees on the edges of woods that get a lot of sun, and have low hanging branches-work like that and you'll find more than you could ever use.
Lois J Handel
Fascinating! Now I gotta go pine cone hunting too! This sounds too good to not try! Thanks so much for posting, you are amazing!
Your fantastic receipe came after I foraged a jar full of the 😁
I read in a russian receipe that the secret is to Cook IT up three Times.
Have YOU ever tried this? And can say now that is Not neccessary?
I've seen it done, but that is with the pure-sugar method. It works, but I prefer the cider.
Fascinating! I never considered that pine cones too, have a meristematic stage, but after nibbling the soft flexible tip of greenbrier, complete with thorns that are soft and squishy, I don't doubt it for an instant. Will look for them, but it is probably too late in the season here.
P.S. Just ate a full serving of Sam Thayer's poke bacon, onions and eggs recipe for lunch, and keeping my fingers crossed.
I see you didn’t add any sugar. Isn’t it sour??
No, it’s not sour. Apple cider is high in sugar. It’s quite sweet.
I remember the time you were over here and I gave you your first taste of Mugo pine syrup. It had been sitting out in the sun in a Mason jar for about 3 months.
I found it very interesting that you mentioned using a dark sugar, because this year, for the first time, it occurred to me to use a dark sugar, too. In my case, I used 1/2 brown sugar and 1/2 white sugar. SOOO much better than white. This year I used some blue spruce tips and some Mugo tips, just because.
renee x gustafson
I used the pinyon cones and it came out excellent, hardly piney with a nice
tang, definitely will make it again next year, it's getting kind of late this year
Renee, that's great. Our red pines in MN and WI I pick still give quite a strong flavor.
Do people actually eat the pinecones in the jam? Is that a weird question ?
Yes the pine cones are eaten. It’s one of the coolest parts of this. The flavor is strong though. You have to try them with goat cheese.
are there other pines that will work? I'm in northern California
To my knowledge, any where the cones are harvested when very small. The flavors will vary though and some may be quite strong.
Apple cider -like alcohol drink or not that kind of cider?xD
As in apple juice apple cider. You want to concentrate the sugar in it which helps make it creamy and thick. Alchoholic cider won't work. It's optional, but it helps to smooth out the flavor and I definitely recommend it.
How would it do to add cranberries for a festive look and taste? I have never tried pine cone jam. Its a must now.
Hi Debbye, Cranberries would be out of place here.
I can’t wait to try this! What time of year do you typically pick the pine cones for this? Would it be in late spring? I’m in northern Oregon and noticed a tree with tiny pine cones in my front yard.
Early to late spring. Sorry I can't speak to your local area. In the Midwest I harvest them in May.
Now I've tried several different apple ciders that are available in my country. And the reduction always end up very sour-not sweet at all 🙁
That said-I've just reduced 0,5L of cider down, to find the cider type I think would give me a good match. The reason for this experimentation, are because I've encountered the sour "problem" in other recipes that call for use of cider reduction.
Any suggestions for what apple type I should go for. I have the possibility of making my own cider from store bought apples (though this will take a lot of time and a quite some lbs of apples 😉 )
But I really want to try out this recipe to give as x-mas presents (I picked cones in May,cleaned them and tossed them in the freezer)
My cider reductions are quite sweet. If you find yours too sour, add a sweetener to taste.
Thanks, I've been thinking of using a bit glucose or fructose to mellow the malic sourness. I read in an earlier reply not to do this,so great to know I don't ruin any thing with adding sweetener 😊
Hey Alan - the vinegar is a nice variation! Did you get the blanching tip from me? I haven't seen anyone use it, before. There was so little to go in terms of references, when I started making it.
Yeah I like adding vinegar to preserves that otherwise call for water. After my restaurant closed I supplied another restaurant for a while and the chef was obsessed with pine cones (Thx Rene). so we worked with every species I could gather. The candied cones were so strong by themselves, I think one of his line cooks tried blanching first. We found we liked P resinosum better blanched, but some others were fine straight-up, like balsam fir, which we would actually separate into petals (way too time consuming for me). P. Siberica was so mild we could *almost* takes bites from it raw, although the cones are too large to eat in a bite.
I love in central Alabama. I've never seen a brown pine cone that small. The green cones I just picked for Mugolio are 2 inches long, 1 inch at the base and almost solid green. Any suggestions for me? I appreciate your time.
Hi Becca. I'm picking P. resinosum here, and they're very small in the spring. Only tiny cones should be used to make varenye. For mugolio you're on the right track, and you can use any size/species as long as they're meristematic/young and tender. Cut the cones in half or into quarters and it will make the maceration/fermentation more efficient. Let me know if that's helpful.
Hi their, I love this recipe I made it today but I did modify a bit. I'm not a fan of cloves so I added two cardamom pods and some fresh pealed ginger and let it all cook down. I found the warm ginger spice really played well with the apple cider and the pine cones.
Recipes are just an idea, it's fine to improvise with small details like that.