Notes from Windward: #68


Acorns Aplenty

Katie describes her work with acorns

     "Living Sustainably" means, in large part, being innovative with what is available to you in your particular time and place, and thinking beyond conventional ideas. Another part of it is recognizing resources deemed unusable by modern culture. One such resource we have here at Windward is acorns in the fall. Although mow most people wouldn't consider them a food, they were once a staple food for Native Americans all across the U.S. ( I think it is telling that a Google search of "acorn" resulted mainly in decorative holiday items that have nothing to do with acorns). They are very high in complex carbohydrates, with lower fat content than most nuts, and they have a slightly sweet taste without containing a lot of sugar- so they are actually very nutritious. They are also very abundant here- during a walk on the property it is easy to see fat green acorns ready to drop from the trees.

a fresh, green acorn

     This early in the season it is kind of tedious to search them out on the ground, although I really can't complain about taking a walk in the woods as a way to earn my food. I was collecting acorns indiscriminately, and found bright green ones, tawny brown ones, and very dark brown ones. I have since learned that the dark brown acorns are actually from last year, which is why all the meat was shriveled and mushy.

a brown acorn from last year

     The light brown ones are the "mature" acorns from this year, however at this juncture it's hard to get them before they start to rot inside. My rule is that if the nutmeat is still hard and whole when I open it, the acorn is probably fine, however these guys are hit and miss- it doesn't hurt to just crack one open and see what's inside. The bright green ones are the young "unripe" ones, although they are perfectly edible. They are also more likely to be healthy and uneaten by worms, and they are easier to see too! When collecting the acorns it is usually easy to see which ones are healthy. The most common problem is a worm that bore through the shell. If you look closely you will probably see a small whole in the shell which is accompanied by some discoloration. Sometimes they are not too easy to see, but push down to determine if it is diseased or just changing colors- a healthy acorn will have no soft spots. It is probably a good idea to remove the little hat too - that way you can see if there is anything weird looking under the hat, and also i have a hunch that it will reduce the risk of rotting in storage. I also stored all the acorns in a jar with a hole in the lid so moisture wasn't trapped inside.

re-using glass to store acorns

     The traditional use of acorns is for flour, but we wanted to do something a little different. Here is where innovation using available resources comes in. All of us here love peanut butter, and it seems like a staple food for most Americans. But peanuts grow in warm climates, and we haven't had much luck with them here. The logical next step is to find something we do have-acorns! Apparently no one has thought of this before, because while most web sites have very detailed instructions for drying and grinding acorn flour, none mention the possibility of butter. Similarly, in a search of nut butters, there were instructions for processing every kind of nut you can imagine, except for "wild" types, like acorns. The only clue I got was one site warning not to grind the flour too long or it will turn into butter. So at least i know it can be done!

     Acorns require a pretty intense process for preparation, because they contain tannin, a chemical that makes them very bitter. Some oak trees have more tannin than others- our oaks are a variety of the white oak, which has a milder tannin taste. I ate a green one, and it was bitter, but not horribly so. I would be able to eat them in an emergency, but they definitely were not too tasty. So I have to find a way to get the tannin out. Usually this involves pouring hot or cold water over them several times or soaking them until the nut has a mild, sweetish flavor. But what is the best way to do this? Because acorns are ground to flour, most people want to dry them out as much as possible, but I need to conserve their oils. So I obviously need to rethink the conventional process. In my research I found some instructions that were either unnecessarily drawn out and difficult, to preserve native traditions, or just kind of silly. But I simplified it into 3 possible ways to get a workable product:

  • 1- Roast the nuts to harden the shell, peel them, roast again to dry them out, leach the tannin, and then grind up.
  • 2-Shell the nuts, then chop them up and boil to leach the tannin, and then dry out to grind.
  • 3- Shell the nuts, dry them out, grind to a flour, then filter the water thru to leach.

     I figured that for my first time working with acorns, the simpler the better, so I skipped any preparation of the shell, and went straight to cracking. Roasting the nuts beforehand just seemed excessive, although I might try that with my next batch to see how much easier it gets. We also thought about boiling them to soften the shells, but it didn't make them noticeable easier to peel. It was just as easy to crack them open and it makes a satisfying crunch. Just use a nutcracker, pliers, or something like that to give you leverage, but make sure your tool is strong. I busted our garlic press in the process. Now I dried the nuts out for storage, until I have a big enough harvest to work with.

roasting the acorn meat

     You can dry out the whole or shelled acorn in the sun or a dehydrator, but the quickest and easiest way seemed to me to just roast them on a cookie sheet at 325°F. I left them in for ten minutes, and they seem a bit dried out, so 8 minutes should be sufficient or just check to see if they seem roasted. After they cooled I put them in an airtight jar to prevent spoilage. I'm assuming, like any other nut, that they will sit tight in the jar until I have enough to process. My plan for the first batch is to chop them a bit and leach them in boiling water. In successive batches I might try the soaking method, since it seems like it would use less water, which is an issue here. Then, without drying them again, I will grind up the pieces, adding a little olive oil if neccessary. A food processor would be best, but we don't have one, so I will try it with the mortar and pestle. Another option for future batches is to put the whole roasted nuts through a coffee grinder to make flour, then leach the flour, and see what happens when I mush that together- perhaps a creamier consistency?

     Whichever way works, it is a labor intensive process, but it could have potentially high yields. One avid harvester claims that her oak tree produces many bushels of acorns a year. And we have a lot of oak trees. Acorns are also supposedly very storable, so if we get the hang of this, we could conceivably have fresh-ground nut butter all year as a substitute for peanuts, or the other nuts that are even more expensive.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 68