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How to Harvest, Roast and Shell Sunflower Seeds

A bowl of sunflower seeds next to the flower itself.
KLSbear/iStock/GettyImages

Shelling or peeling sunflower seeds is simple to do, but it can be time-consuming. Sunflowers (‌Helianthus annuus‌) bloom spectacularly during the summer months, producing their characteristic daisy-like flowers just a couple of months after the seeds sprout.

The flowers eventually mature into seed heads that are smothered in edible seeds, which can be roasted and shelled as soon as they reach full ripeness. Although knowing how to shell sunflower seeds is an optional part of harvesting from sunflower plants, it makes the seeds easier to snack on and to use in baking and cooking.

How Do You Know When Sunflower Seeds Are Ready to Be Harvested?

Sunflower seeds can be harvested in late summer or early autumn after the seeds have fully ripened.

According to the Kansas State University Extension, sunflowers are ready for harvest when the florets turn brown in the center and the heads rotate toward the ground. The back side of the head should be a light yellow color similar to a lemon but, overall, the entire plant should be brown in color.

A ripe sunflower head will also have no petals attached to the floret and the leaves below the head will be dried out too.

Harvesting and Drying Sunflower Seeds

  1. Cut off the sunflower head 5 to 10 inches down the stem using a sharp knife or sturdy pruning shears.
  2. Place it in a large paper bag with the stem sticking out the top.
  3. Tie the bag closed around the stem and hang the bag in a warm, dry place for a few days to let the sunflower head dry out. Seeds will drop out as the head dries, but they will fall into the paper bag rather than onto the floor.
  4. The seeds can also be removed by rubbing two dried heads together or by rubbing the heads against a washboard.

Roasting Sunflower Seeds

Roasting sunflower seeds is not mandatory, but it does makes them easier to shell, according to the Colorado State University Extension, and roasting also makes sunflower seeds taste better.

Unsalted

Unsalted sunflower seeds can be spread on a baking sheet and roasted for 15 to 25 minutes at 300°F. Stir or agitate the seeds every few minutes to ensure even toasting.

Start checking the seeds after 10 minutes and keep checking them every few minutes until they look toasted. Sunflower seeds are finished cooking when they develop a nutty scent.

Salted

If you want salty sunflower seeds, the process is a little bit more involved.

First, soak the seeds overnight in a brine solution of 2 tablespoons salt in 1 cup of water. Boil the sunflower seeds in the brine solution for a few minutes and then drain them in a mesh colander.

Spread the seeds on a baking sheet and bake them for three hours in an oven set to 200°F, stirring them occasionally.

A close-up of unshelled sunflower seeds.
engin akyurt, CC, via Unsplash

Removing Sunflower Seed Shells

Roasted sunflowers can be cracked and eaten as they are, but they are easier to eat and to use in recipes if they are shelled after roasting.

  1. Put the roasted sunflower seeds in a 1-gallon plastic bag and settle them into a single layer on a countertop.
  2. Roll a rolling pin over the seeds, applying very light, gentle pressure. Make several passes over the seeds. Try not to pulverize the sunflower seeds; the idea is to crack the shells without crushing the seeds inside.

Michigan State University Extension recommends putting the cracked seeds into a mixing bowl filled with water and stirring them around. The broken hulls will float to the surface, and the heavy, oily seeds will sink to the bottom.

Drain the water and gather the seeds from the bottom of the bowl. Dry them with paper towels and spread them on a baking sheet in a 200°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes to dry them out before storing them in a plastic bag inside the refrigerator.

Can You Eat the Shells of Sunflower Seeds?

Though eating a few here and there probably isn't a big deal, you should generally avoid eating sunflower seed shells‌, as they are mostly fiber, not digestible and will likely lead to constipation.

Moreover, the sharp pieces may damage your esophagus or digestive tract.

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