Acorns

When you think of edible nuts, you probably never think of acorns.  Squirrels love them, and farmers feed them to their hogs, but not too many people today think of eating these nuts that were once a staple of many Native American diets long before the domestication of maize.

If you start looking into the edibility of acorns, you will discover that oak trees fall into two categories: red and white.  You can easily differentiate the two categories by the leaves.  Oaks in the red group have a point or “brush” at the tips of the leaves, while oaks in the white group have rounded leaf tips.  The red category includes species like Arkansas oak, pin oak, bluejack oak, water oak, willow oak, and of course southern red oak.  The white category includes species like bur oak, chinkapin oak, post oak, Texas live oak, and white oak.  You can also differentiate the two groups by the acorns themselves.  Red oak acorns have a kind of woolly fuzz inside the shell when you crack them open, whereas white oak acorns do not.

Why does it matter which group of oak your acorns come from?  The acorns of the red group have more tannin in them than those of the white group, which makes them taste bitter.  Most acorns have some amount of tannin in them, however so you will want to leach the tannins out before cooking with them.

So here’s what you do.  After you gather your acorns, you will need to process them in order to turn them into a kind of meal that you can use in recipes.  You will have to shell them, obviously, as well as leach, dry and grind them into meal.

The first time I tried shelling acorns, I sat down with a nutcracker and did them one-by-one.  Needless to say, I gave up after a while.  The Native Americans were masters at conserving energy (to the point where most Europeans thought them lazy) so I doubt they ever shelled their acorns this way.

The easiest method I have heard of for getting the nuts out of their shells involves pounding them in a bucked with a piece of firewood and then winnowing the busted shells away from the meat by pouring the pounded shells from one bucket to another in front of a fan or on a windy day.  The shells should blow away in the breeze and let the nutmeats fall into the new bucket.  You may need to repeat this step a few times in order to get rid of all the shells.

Next you will need to leach the nutmeats.  I have read about the Native Americans putting them in a bag or basket in a stream and letting the cold water carry away the tannins.  You can also leach them more quickly in your kitchen by boiling the acorns in several changes of water.  Cover the nutmeats in a stock pot with twice as much water and boil for 5-10 minutes until the water gets dark.  Pour off the water and repeat as necessary (5 or 6 times) until the nutmeats taste palatable.  Give them a final rinse in cold water to make sure all the leached tannins wash away.

Now you will need to dry the acorns.  You have a few options here.  A dehydrator works well, obviously, but it will only handle small amounts at a time.  You can also spread them out on a sheet or tarp in a dry, warm place, but unless you have a sun room you may end up loosing some of your bounty to squirrels and birds.  You can also dry them on cookie sheets in your oven on the lowest setting.  It helps to leave the oven door propped open a little bit to let the moisture escape.

Finally you will need to grind the acorns.  A food processor makes quick work of this step.  And if you want really fine grained meal, you could run it through a coffee grinder.  Once you have ground your meal, you can store it like flour or cornmeal in a dry place.  If you thoroughly dehydrated your acorns, the meal should last indefinitely as long as you don’t expose it to moisture or humidity.

Now, how do you cook with acorns?  Acorn meal has a texture similar to cornmeal, so you can substitute it as you like.  You can also try substituting half of the flour in a recipe for acorn meal.  Or try one of these recipes.

Plant Profiles
The Plant Profiles series comes from a periodic newsletter that my current job produces. I write contributions on plants to put in the newsletter. These contributions differ from the majority of my blogging material in that they do not use e-prime and that I wrote them for an audience that has little to no familiarity with edible and medicinal plants
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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lotka Volterra on 10/15/2007 at 1:27 pm

    Hey, this looks like the ideal place to ask the question which has been with me ever since I read “Sandorkraut’s” book on fermentation: Does fermenting the acorn meats reduce or eliminate the tannins, or not?

    Reply

  2. Posted by Rix on 10/15/2007 at 1:34 pm

    You ask an excellent question, Lotka Volterra. I don’t know from personal experience, as I have never tried that route with acorns. I did however read several accounts of how indigenous people would bury acorns in mud for really long periods of time — possibly resulting in fermentation. Although none of the sources indicated this directly, as they merely mentioned it as a historical note.

    I know a lot of the users over at the REWILD.info forum have done a lot of fermenting, so perhaps someone over there could answer your question. I would recommend starting a post in the Flora Food / Medicine board. You will have to sign up for an account to post, but it won’t cost you anything to do so. And I find that the members there have a wealth of information.

    Good luck with finding the answer to your question.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Andrew Jensen on 10/15/2007 at 2:13 pm

    I’m working on my first batch of Acorn meal right now. The one thing I did different is that I ground it up first in a cheese grater BEFORE leaching it. This increases surface area on the bits of acorn and should make leaching faster.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Lotka Volterra on 10/25/2007 at 2:03 pm

    Rix,

    thanks for your reply. I do intend to join the forum (have intended for quite some time, actually) at some point — but not right now. CU!

    Reply

  5. Posted by Mr.ArfArf on 10/29/2007 at 8:53 am

    I’ve been doing this lately also!(in Seattle) wonderful article!! I thought you might be interested in this.

    The Acorn Hopper featured on this native american basketry page http://www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/baskets/use/cooking.html (left)

    “A staple of the California Native diet was the acorn. Gathered in conical baskets large enough to hold a bushel or two, the nuts were shelled, dried on tule mats, and stored in baskets. The acorns were ground on a hollowed stone mortar with a pestle. A basketry hopper kept the meal from scattering during grinding. ”

    http://www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/baskets/use.html

    Reply

  6. I find fermenting acorns increases the sugars. I’m not sure if it decreases the tannins or only tastes so since they are sweeter. I still need to leach for a day or two even if the sugars have been raised.

    Reply

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