Identify and Store Nuts for the Winter
Think Like a Squirrel
Scarlet leaves are among us as the nights become cooler. If you are starting to feel a little squirrelly, you are not alone. It is the chilly fall that encourages those popular plume-tailed bandits to collect, hoard and cache nuts throughout the forest.
Centuries ago, our ancestors earnestly competed with the acrobatic omnivores for those rich sources of protein, dietary fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. Today, the excitement of identifying, collecting and preparing these tasty wild epicurean treats is still present.
PECANS (CARYA ILLINOINENSIS)
Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen, Ph.D. from the company Foraging Texas, has been a forager all of his life. Having learned the act of nutting, or foraging for nuts, from his parents was one of the ways they got food on the table.
Pecans are best harvested right when they’ve fallen from the tree, Merriwether advises. Pecans, which are a type of hickory nut, are easy to harvest, delicious and meaty. To collect, Merriwether recommends a “nut collector” of course.
“Most hardware stores around here sell nut collectors, which are giant wire springs curved into a half-circle and fastened to a stick,” he described. “As you push the spring down onto the pecan the wire spreads then closes up again, trapping the pecans inside the spring. After getting 10 to 15 pecans, you dump them from the spring into a bucket.”
While pecans are grown commercially, about half of the nation’s crop is produced from native trees. Wild pecans are smaller than the dozens of commercial varieties that are grown from orchards spanning California to Georgia.
“Shelling pecans is tough but many of the larger farmers markets will have someone there with industrial cracking machines that will bust the shells for a small fee,” Merriwether says. And for those do-it-yourselfers? “A shell cracking, lever-action tool is used,” he says.
BLACK WALNUT (JUGLANS NIGRA)
A particular favorite for Merriwether is the Black walnut.
“When the nuts are still young and tender they can be pickled for a really neat snack,” he says. “Once mature, they’ll begin falling from the tree even though their outer husks are still green.”
Removing green husks is hard and messy yet necessary to prevent the nut meat from picking up their iodine-like flavor, Merriwether says.
Naturalist, humorist and storyteller Doug Elliott of dougelliott.com is based out of North Carolina and teaches the skill of foraging throughout the U.S. He proudly has a large dark stain in his driveway from removing the shells of the black walnut with his car.
“Country tradition is to toss them in the driveway and drive over them for a week or so,” Elliott explains. With a soft dirt or gravel driveway the car tires remove the husk and the walnut’s shell remains unbroken.
“You can use the husks for a rich brown dye on wool and other natural fabrics,” Elliott says. “The nut shells can be made into buttons, knobs, and other useful items.”
Elliott rakes the nuts, hoses them off and sun dries them for a few days. He then stores them outside in a well-ventilated, rodent-proof container, which can be stored for a few years. As the nut kernels begin to dry, the meat shrinks making them easy to shell.
“Once the outer husk is off, a hammer and a good TV show is the best combination for breaking open the hard, inner shell,” Merriwether suggests. “It’s mindless work once you get the rhythm down.”
Elliott recommends a carpenter’s hammer, as the hammer’s leverage helps the process. “Many years ago we ordered the famous lever-action Potter Walnut Cracker, made in Salpulpa, Oklahoma,” Elliott shares. “Picking out the nut meats is still somewhat labor intensive, but using the cracker has increased our walnut consumption considerably.”
HICKORY NUTS (CARYA OVATA)
When finding nuts, hickories are both a joy and a curse. With 20 species and subspecies spanning eastern and central United States, it is sometimes hard to identify the trees that produce the meaty sweet nuts and those that produce mostly shell, bitter nuts.
Carya ovata, or the shagbark hickory, is a large deciduous tree with a distinctly fringed trunk that can live hundreds of years and grow up to 100 feet tall. Hickory nuts are similar to a cross between pecan and walnuts. “They are easier than black walnuts to shell but still have a really nice flavor,” Merriwether says. “You don’t need to drive over hickories.”
A hammer, or a rock, is all you need to get at the nut meat inside. The outer husks of hickories have four “seams” running top to bottom, whereas black walnut husks have no seams.
ACORN (QUERCUS SP.)
To leave out acorns in a nutting article, one must be a nutcase, as they are the quintessential ubiquitous fall harvest. Acorns, a nut from an oak tree, can be harvested from any one of the 60 plus oak species in North America. Acorns from white oaks taste sweeter than those from black and red species. Acorns may be one of the oldest foods known to man with evidence of their ingestion dating back to Paleolithic cave abodes.
After shelling the acorns, sweet varieties can be eaten raw or roasted. Those that are slightly bitter to tannins can be boiled to make them more palatable. Boil the whole kernels for 15 minutes in an ample amount of water. Pour off the water and repeat the boiling process for another 15 minutes.
Keep repeating until the water does not become tinted due to the tannins. The water that you initially poured off can be used for insect bites, bee stings, sunburns and rashes, as the tannins are an astringent that help draw the tissue together.
To roast acorns in an oven, bake at 250°F to 300°F for one hour. Acorns can be eaten whole, chopped in bread and muffins or blended into a meal, which can be substituted for up to half the flour in any recipe.
Fall foraging is a great pastime that connects us to nature and our ancestors. It allows us to enjoy the new season, new flavors and get a little nuts.
Published in the November/December 2016 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.