Cashews: The Nut That’s Not A Nut

Everyone's favorite nut has a few secrets. Not only are cashews not officially "nuts," but you'll be amazed to see how they grow!

A handful of cashews may be a nutrition-packed snack food, but did you know the popular kidney-shaped nut doubles as a dairy substitute in a variety of scrumptious recipes? They also grow in the most unusual way!

Cashews: A Nut or a Seed?

Cashews are derived from a tropical evergreen tree originally native to Brazil. The top cashew producing countries today include Vietnam, Peru, India, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire.  What is strange about the cashew is how it grows. Although the cashew is considered a culinary nut, botanically it is actually a seed.  The cashew (seed) comes from the cashew apple. The apple is yellow and bell-shaped and slightly resembles a bell pepper.

The cashew is encased in a crescent-shaped shell which grows from the bottom of the cashew apple on the tropical cashew tree. Wonder why you haven’t heard of the cashew apple before? The juice within the cashew apple is used locally when harvested, as a fruit drink. The exterior of the fruit, however, is very fragile and not able to withstand shipping. So, until you travel to a cashew orchard, there is the tasty cashew nut to enjoy. This delicious nut is rich in vitamins and minerals: potassium, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, protein, iron, copper, vitamins K, and B-6, dietary fiber and healthy fats. Cashews contain no cholesterol.

In the tropical regions of the world, the cashew is used extensively and is served in a wide range of culinary dishes such as stir-fry, meat stews, soups, savory sauces, and milk-based desserts.  Cashews are extremely versatile and have unlimited potential of recipe applications, including cheese spread, ice cream, nut butter, cashew milk, cashew cream, cheesecake, vegetable lasagna, and the list goes on!

Cashews as a Dairy Substitute

So what makes the cashew so creamy and the perfect dairy substitute?

  1. High in Fat. The cashew’s high-fat content makes it the perfect cheese, peanut butter, milk, and cream alternative.
  2. High in Starch. The second quality that makes the cashew especially versatile in preparing dairy-like foods is its high starch content. Cashews contain more starch than other oily tree nuts, up to 10% of their weight. The starch in cashews makes it superior to other nuts and seeds as a thickening agent in water or milk-based soups, beverages, or desserts.
  3. Subtle Flavor. Cashew’s mild, buttery flavor complements and blends well with other ingredients, instead of masking them. Cashews taste great when paired with fresh basil in pesto recipes, layered as a cheese replacement in vegetable lasagna, and when combined with fresh fruits in ice cream making.

Cashews as a Dairy Substitute

If you haven’t added cashews to your diet beyond fancy mixed nuts or trail mix, here are three yummy recipes featuring cashews used in place of dairy products.

Cashew and Sun-Dried Tomato “Cheese” Spread

Once you taste this scrumptious spread, you’ll never go back to traditional cheese spreads.

Yield: 2 cups

Tomaž Ažman - Nosilec dopolnilne dejavnosti na kmetiji - Vegetable

Cashew and Sun-Dried Tomato “Cheese” Spread

2 from 1 vote
Course Side Dish
Cuisine American


  • 1 ½ cups cashews
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic
  • ¼ cup water
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • tablespoon sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil with Italian seasonings
  • ½ teaspoon Himalayan sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon Italian seasonings
  • A squirt of Liquid Aminos, optional (available where health foods are sold)


  • Directions:
     Place cashews and garlic cloves in the small bowl of a food processor and mix until cashews are ground. Add remaining ingredients and pulse until mixture is smooth and thoroughly combined.
  • Serving Suggestions:
    For a delicious appetizer fill decapped and hollowed cherry tomatoes with this cashew and sundried tomato mixture, or spread on celery sticks. This spread also tastes great as a topping on baked portabella mushroom caps or eggplant.
Keyword Cashew and Sun-Dried Tomato “Cheese” Spread, sun-dried tomato spread

Cashew Ricotta 

This is a perfect substitute for ricotta in lasagna without the dairy. Also makes a perfect dip or spread!

Yield: approx. 2 cups.

Cashew Ricotta

2 from 1 vote
Course Side Dish
Cuisine American


  • 1 1/2 cup raw, unsalted cashews
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Juice of 1 large lemon or 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (not baking yeast)
  • 1 small garlic clove
  • 1/2 teaspoon Sea salt
  • Cracked pepper, to taste


  • Directions:
    Soak the cashews for at least two hours in a bowl of water. Drain and place all remaining ingredients into a blender or food processor, scraping down sides as needed until a creamy consistency. Test for flavor, adding any additional ingredients to taste.
  • Store in refrigerator in an airtight container for an hour or two, this will stiffen the mixture a bit.  Keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week. (Note: When using as ricotta in lasagna, do not mix with eggs. Use as is).
Keyword Cashew Ricotta, cashew ricotta ravioli
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Deborah Tukua

Deborah Tukua is a natural living, healthy lifestyle writer and author of 7 non-fiction books, including Pearls of Garden Wisdom: Time-Saving Tips and Techniques from a Country Home, Pearls of Country Wisdom: Hints from a Small Town on Keeping Garden and Home, and Naturally Sweet Blender Treats. Tukua has been a writer for the Farmers' Almanac since 2004.

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If you’re allergic to poison ivy, then you’re allergic to cashew and mango too. So sad for me but not worth the awful side effects.

Debra Kelly

I must be allergic to them? I get severe headaches when I eat them. Have tried it several times over the years and the same thing happens every time. I love them but I’m afraid to try it again. My Momma had the same thing happen to her every time she ate them. I’ve been told because they grow above the ground, it is something that I could be allergic to? Just curious if anyone else has experienced this?


2 stars
It may not be a nut, but I am very allergic to it!

Debra Kelly

Me too!!

Ethan Boutin

I am iron deficient and am in vital need of iron and I was told that cashews are high in iron and that doesn’t seem to be the case. I am very disappointing and would like to speak to your manager.


Cashews, Anacardium occidentale are in the same family as poison ivy and poison sumac. Like those plants, the cashew plant contains powerful chemical irritants known as anacardic acids, so handling and eating raw cashews will cause the familiar itchy skin reaction in people sensitive to the chemicals.

Dennis Martin

Raw cashews contain urushiol, a resin that is toxic if ingested and can cause rashes or burns if it contacts the skin. To remove this substance, cashews must go through a rigorous roasting or steaming process to ensure they are safe to eat. They are Poisonous until Roasted.

Susan Higgins

The good news, Dennis, is that “raw” cashews that we see in stores are not really raw. They have been heat processed and not toxic. So you’ll see many health food stores selling “raw” cashews (for dairy substitutes) and these are perfectly safe to eat. This is taken care of before they even hit the market.

Teresa Grocki

this fruit is also called the marañon in Costa Rica; it makes a delicious fruit drink with only water, and a touch of sugar because it is a bittersweet fruit when red. When we would take the train from San Jose to Puntarenas, at the different stops along the way, the locals would come on board and sell snacks and 1 was a slender bag of “mani” or nuts…that is their name there; just mani.


I had marañon many years ago in Panama and it was sweet and delicious. I don’t recall if it was red.

jonathan riikonen

I read about another amazing benefit of cashew nuts. They as a tooth cleanser and very effective decay fighter, naturally. I have had a big cavity hole in my tooth and after starting to eat my daily cashew nuts it has never bothered me again.


Soak RAW cashews in an equal amount of water in the fridge for a couple of hours to soften them, then blenderize into a thin paste. You can now use the paste as a substitute for cream, or if watered down, milk in soups, sautés, cold drinks. I don’t recommend baking with it as a milk substitute though.

Susan Higgins

Hi Chris445: Actually, our recipe for ricotta cheese (in the story) is very similar and we’ve baked a lasagna with it and it came out fabulous!


I ate too many cashews and got cashew rash a few times. It’s very itchy and occurs on arms and legs. Takes a while for the oil to get out of system. So, I probably won’t try the recipes.

Susan Higgins

lindalou, no that sounds like an allergy. Never continue to consume any food if you react to it!

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