Its fall. And once again, one of the most readily available, easy to gather food sources is going completely ignored by most of you adventurers out there! Acorns are all over the place. And this year is a mast year, meaning the crop of acorns is at a cyclical peak.
Acorns are the fruiting product of the family of oak trees, and there are a tremendous variety of oaks out there. I will leave it to Samuel Thayer to guide you in the direction of specific species of oaks, and their differences in fruit quality, because in my experience, I have not been able to find much of a difference. Thayer’s book, Nature’s Garden, has the most extensive treatise on acorn harvest and preparation that I’ve come across, and is what I base a lot of my own acorn knowledge on. I highly recommend this book to any aspiring forager. It is full of magic!
Alright, time for harvest! Its the perfect time of year to be out looking for acorns. Just ask the deer and squirrels. Its one of their favorite foods, and a good thing to look for in the woods if you’re hunting either species. My best deer stand hangs overlooking a nice little oak grove in the middle of some wetlands.
Oaks are an incredibly prevalent species in my neighborhood, but if you have a hard time identifying the trees themselves, the acorns that we’re searching for are a dead give away. Most acorns are rounded in shape, with a hard shell, and a cap (or hat) on the top of the shell. They’re usually a redish brown when ripe, and green unripe. Look for them on the ground. This year especially, its nearly impossible to take a walk in the woods without crunching some acorns.
Once you’ve located a good patch, settle into a comfortable position and start to picking. We’re not looking for fruit on trees, we’re picking up the nuts right off the ground. Make sure to expect each one as you drop it into your sack or bucket. Acorns that have dropped are often hosting a little guest that you won’t want to see in your kitchen. If you find a small hole, or dark discoloration on the acorn, you’re going to want to toss that into the woods. Its likely holding an acorn weevil, which isn’t harmul to humans, but does ruin the acorn.
I usually spend a couple hours gathering a sack full of acorns. It can be tedious work, and passes quicker with a couple of extra hands. Recruit some friends to go galavanting through the woods, and then coerce them into helping you gather up some delicious acorns! Make sure to collect about three times as much as you think you’ll need. The first time I gathered acorns I was suprised and dissapointed by both how many I had to toss out, and how little flour it made in the end.
And that brings us to processing these little buggers! There are plenty of opinions on acorn processing, and two primary methods, hot and cold leeching, but I’m only going to tackle one of those in this post, because its the way I do it, and thats why we’re here. We need to process the acorns a little after gathering because of one thing – Tannins. I don’t pretend to really know what tannins are, but I know you don’t want them in your acorns, they’ll make everything taste unpalateably bitter. To get rid of the tannins, I like to soak my acorns in cold water, which would be considered cold leeching. Toss the whole acorns, shell and all, into a 5 gallon bucket. and cover with cold water. Immediatley remove any acorns that float to the surface, they’re likely not going to be ones you want to eat.
Soak the acorns for 12 hours, then drain. I like to accomplish this with a plastic lid on the 5 gallon bucket and a couple of screwdriver punched holes. Refill the bucket with cold water and leech for another 12 hours. You’re going to want to do this process at least three times, and up to 10. What we’re looking for is the water to stop pouring out brown, and start pouring out clear. Once you’ve leeched them to your hearts desire, find some old window screens, or baking sheets and spread your acorns out to dry. If you’ve got some nice warm, sunny days to dry out your acorns, its best to do this outside in spurts, but I’ve also successful done it on dry shelves in the dark in my basement. Ideally, dry your acorns in a couple hour stints on sunny afternoons a couple of days in a row, and then transfer them to a cool, dry spot for another few weeks (I’ve left mine for months in the winter, acorns have a long shelf life). If the shells on your acorns are splitting open of their own accord, they’re probably dried!
Now its time for cracking! Grab a mallet, or small wooden round, which is what I use, a cutting board, and put on a good movie. When I’m doing small batches of acorns, I crack them all by hand. Its surprisingly satisfying to smash the shells and select only the best nut meets as you’re going. But to do a large batch, a burlap sack comes in handy. Fill your sack with acorns and stomp away on it with whatever is heavy and handy – I like my large handmade wooden mallet, but a sledge hammer works well too, or your feet with heavy soled shoes on, and some people have been known to run them under a car tire. That seems excessive to me!
Once you’ve managed to shell the acorns, they can be stored. I prefer to put them in gallon mason jars and store them in the basement. I’ll usually grind a bunch to have some acorn meal on hand in the kitchen, and then store the rest as whole nut meats. I use this cheap hand powered grain mill to do my grinding, but feel free to find one that fits your needs. A grain mill is a wonderful tool to add to your kitchen.
At this point you’re probably thinking, damn, this seems like a lot of work. And it is! But acorns store forever, and make a delicious flour, so persevere. I currently have a two year old jar of acorns on the shelf that is fresh as the day I harvested them.
On to the point of all this. What are we going to do with all those acorns?! My preference is to fresh grind them for use as a flour or meal. They make a great substitute for chopped nuts in cookie recipes (I’ve been banned from making acorn chocolate chip cookies because the GF says she can’t stop herself from eating them all). Its also a great flour addition in bread recipes, or thickener in soups and stews. I’ll be tackling some delicious recipes for acorns in some following posts, including giving away my secret, most delicious cookies ever to hit your mouth recipe! Good luck foraging friends!