A nutcracker is essential for removing nuts from the shell. If you buy walnuts, pecans, or other nuts still in the shell (except for peanuts, whose shells are soft enough to break by hand, or pistachios, which come with the shell partly open), you will need a nutcracker to be able to eat them. This tool is also useful for cracking crabs, lobsters, and other shellfish, but as its name implies, cracking nuts is its main purpose.
Nutcrackers are available in both functional (that is, meant to be used as a tool) and decorative versions. Decorative nutcrackers are usually doll-size figurines with mouths that open wide enough to hold a nut and shut with enough force to crack it. The nutcracker featured in the popular Christmastime ballet “The Nutcracker” is a prime example of one. While a decorative nutcracker could be used to crack nuts, it is meant for decoration, often a Christmas decoration. It is not necessarily strong enough to crack many nuts without breaking.
Functional nutcrackers come in four types: handheld, table top, dynamic, and kinetic. Dynamic and kinetic nutcrackers are electric. Handheld and table top nutcrackers are operated by hand. Using any of these is simple.
A dynamic nutcracker bears some resemblance to a rectangular pencil sharpener. It has a cracking chamber, where you place the nut to be cracked, and a small anvil inside that hits the nutshell to crack it. Simply place the nut in the cracking chamber and flip the switch. When the motor stops, the nut is cracked. Open the cracking chamber and remove the nut.
A kinetic nutcracker improves on the dynamic nutcracker concept by being able to crack more nuts in quick succession. It has a rotating cylinder with an anvil inside, and it spits the cracked nut out the bottom. When the machine is turned on, the cylinder rotates constantly and the anvil comes down every couple of seconds, like clockwork. Feed a nut into the cylinder about once every two seconds, and the work is done.
Hand operated nutcrackers take a little more effort, but they, too, are simple to use. The handheld nutcracker is the most versatile type, the smallest and easiest to pack and store. It resembles a pair of pliers. To use, place the nut between the grips and squeeze.
If you place the nut just right, and if you are lucky, it will break evenly in two. However, not all cracks with the handheld nutcracker go so smoothly. Sometimes, the nutshell breaks so unevenly that it takes one or two more tries to get all the meat out.
Table top nutcrackers apply pressure somewhat more evenly, making uneven breaks much less likely. They come in many styles. Similarly to large pencil sharpeners, a table top nutcracker can be placed on a table or countertop or mounted on a wall.
All table top nutcrackers have a space to place the nut and a piece above it that comes down on the nut heavily enough to crack it. Imagine holding the nut down on a plate and smashing it with a hammer. The table top nutcracker allows you to do this without putting your fingers in harm’s way, and with a much smaller and gentler hammer. The device holds the nut in place, and the top piece that comes down serves as the hammer. To use, place the nut in the nut holding spot and pull the lever.
The decorative nutcracker is a dressed up version of the table top nutcracker design. The figurine’s lower jaw is the space to hold the nut. Lifting a piece on the figurine’s back (in the case of the nutcracker featured in the famous ballet, his coattail is the lever to pull) brings the jaw up, closing the figurine’s mouth so forcefully that the nut cracks.
All kinds of nutcracker are simple to use. Some take more effort than others, and some are fancier and more expensive than others. A handheld nutcracker usually sells for about $20 – $40 USD, while a kinetic nutcracker may cost hundreds of dollars. Table top and dynamic nutcrackers are priced somewhere in between. Any kind of nutcracker is handy to have around and may make a good holiday gift.