17 September 2015
Preparing and Eating Acorns
The first time I tried roasted acorn meal, I was pleasantly surprised by its rich earthy flavor. Being a wild foods forager I had heard and read about processing and eating acorns, but had always been daunted by the seemingly lengthy and difficult task. After being inspired by their taste, I was ready to try processing them on my own. One crisp fall day the abundant and large chestnut oak acorns called out to my palette; I began to stuff them into my backpack, quite pleased with how quickly I could gather a large cache full. Most of us descend from acorn eating cultures. Historically a staple food in Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Mid- East, and North America, acorns made up half of the diet for many of the Native peoples of California.
Acorns have been a “grain from the tree” for so many Native peoples because of their abundance, nutrition, and sustainability. A mature healthy oak forest can produce as much as 6,000 pounds per acre, requires little to no cultivation, and can grow on and stabilize the steep banks so prevalent in our mountainous terrain. Acorns are variable in their nutritional composition – predominately a carbohydrate source with fat percentages reaching 17% and protein percentages around 4%. Surprisingly, they are also a good source of Vitamins A and C.
Harvesting and preparing acorns
This edible nut of Oak trees (Quercus spp.) must often be processed to leach out tannins; this mouth-puckering substance is also found in a strong cup of black tea. Tannins interfere with digestion by binding to proteins in the gastro-intestinal tract and must be consumed moderately. Certain species contain more tannins than others and there is even a wide range of tannin levels within individuals of the same species.
Finding a “sweet” tree is helpful as one tree can produce all the acorns you need for a year, and the tree can be revisited every fall. There are two major tribes of oak species, the Red oak group and the White oak group. The Red oak tribe such species as the scarlet oak, the black oak, and the red oak, all with high tannin acorns. The
White oak tribe contains the species with the more palatable acorns. In our area I have found the white oak (Quercus alba) to be the mildest, with the Chestnut oak (Quercus prinus) a close second. That said I still prefer the Chestnut oak acorns because of their larger size and greater ease in shelling. Some years oaks synchronize their reproduction and produce a bumper crop of edible nuts; these years are called mast years.
Other years can be slim pickings. The year I began experimenting with acorn eating was massively inspirational in its abundance. With my backpack weighed down with acorns I began to contemplate the relative work and energy inputs of my potato and grain corn patches versus the work involved harvesting these wild nuts. Further factoring into the equation was my access to metal garden tools, including a tiller and chainsaw for clearing the land necessary for these annual crops. In addition I considered the environmental impact of clearing land and suddenly acorns were looking smarter and tastier. There are many different ways to process acorns but all result in a diminished tannin level and a more digestible food. I work with the acorns soon after gathering them to beat out the acorn weevil larva.
Directions for leaching the tannins out of acorns:
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Place the acorns, shell and all, into the already boiling water. This is important as putting the acorns in colder water and then bringing the pot to boil can lock in the undesirable tannins. Boil for a couple minutes and strain the water off. The purpose of this first boiling is to loosen the shells in preparation for shelling.
- Let your acorns cool off until you can comfortably hold them in your hands. We take the broad flat end of a very small log and hit them on a cutting board to crack open the shell. We peel the remaining shell by hand and place the kernels aside. This is the most work intensive step and can take a while if you have a good amount of nuts. Children love this activity and will go at it for a surprisingly long time. Once you have your acorns shelled you can keep them whole or chop them up coarsely. Some folks run them through a hand cranked grinder at this point. I prefer to keep them whole as they seem to lose less of their good oils to the leach water and drain more easily if they are not so mealy.
- Now bring two large pots to a boil. Place your shelled acorns into your first pot of just boiled water and turn down the back pot as you will not need it for a couple of minutes. Boil your acorns until the water turns dark – probably 5 minutes or so. Strain in a large colander and use the second pot of reserved boiling water to pour over the acorns for a second round of boiling. Repeat until the acorns are less astringent; you may need to follow this leaching process two to four times depending on the species of acorn.
- What to do with the leached acorns? You can chop them to a coarse meal and add them to a dish immediately or save them in the fridge for a couple days. To store them longer you can freeze them, dry them in a dehydrator or in the oven, set on low with the door ajar. Many people prefer roasted acorns as it brings out their rich sweetness. To roast them place the dry acorn meal on a metal cookie sheet in the oven at 175 degrees, and stir them often until they are brown and your kitchen smells like yummy forest goodness. Store the fully dehydrated meal in a closed jar until ready to use.
I add my acorn meal to chili, soups, pancakes, cookies, oatmeal, and breads. I generally add acorn meal in one-fourth proportion to the flour in breads as it will not rise on its own. Many North American tribes combined acorn meal with equal parts corn meal for their corn bread. A surefire way to please even the most finicky of eaters is to replace nuts with acorns in any zucchini bread recipe.
Sweet Potato Acorn Cornbread Recipe
1 1⁄2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 1⁄2 cup cornmeal
4 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄4 cup sucanat sugar (optional)
2 cups mashed sweet potato
1⁄2 cup milk- rice, soy, cow or goat
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups acorn meal (finely chopped)
- Preheat the oven at 400 and steam 2-3 large sweet potatoes. Peel and mash the sweet potatoes.
- Mix together the dry ingredients – flour, cornmeal, salt, baking powder and sugar.
- Separately mix the wet ingredients – eggs, sweet potatoes, acorns, milk and oil.
- Mix the dry and wet ingredients and cook in a greased muffin tin or in two bread pans (not to deep in the bread pans – under 2 inches deep) and bake for 20 minutes or until done. The inside will still be moist after it is cooked.
You can creatively vary this basic recipe by adding cranberries or creating a savory cheese and jalapeno version. This is a dense moist nutritious cornbread and makes excellent trail food, as it is filling and compact.
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