It’s September, and the snaps and cracks echoing from the ground can mean just one thing: acorn time!
Yes, you can eat them, and yes, they do have a distinctive flavor.
But before you get too excited about the prospect of impressing your foodie friends and doomsday preppers with a hand-foraged, hand-processed, from-scratch delicacy, know this:
Cooking with acorns is a massive commitment.
I first tried this a few years back, inspired by the internet’s array of optimistic recipes for acorn bread, acorn cookies, acorn noodles, acorn pancakes and acorn soups, with photos involving attractive earthenware and warm, autumnal light.
After a week of research, a bucket of acorns, two disintegrated thumbnails, a nightmare’s worth of baby worms and about 20 hours of labor, I had a half-cup of acorn flour.
But I know I made some time-consuming mistakes, and there are ways to stagger the processing steps to make it all more manageable.
So this year, wiser and more realistic, I gave this project another try.
Step One: Forage
Oak trees are all over Utah, with loads of scrub or gambel oaks on the Wasatch benches, which provided my harvest last time. If you don’t have an oak in your yard, you probably won’t have to wander far to find a neighbor’s tree depositing acorns onto the street.
Start collecting now, as the acorns are beginning to fall. I started collecting in October last time, and I think that was my fatal error. A lot of the acorns had been on the ground for weeks, and the cream of the crop had been picked over by critters, leaving me with a lot of wormy duds. Even after eliminating all the acorns with holes, cracks and other obvious problems, about 75 percent of my stash was infested or decaying.
By comparison, I threw out only about 35 percent of what I collected last week.
If you gather acorns from different types of oaks, try to keep them separate because they might require different degrees of leaching to remove the bitterness.
Step Two: Pick the Winners
Acorns can be infested with weevils, which grow inside the nut and leave through a little hole in the side of the shell.
If you have a lot of acorns, a popular way to separate the good nuts from the bad is to put them in water. Keep the sinkers, and toss the floaters. This definitely cut down on my weevil discoveries, but I still found some worms in the ones that sank.
You can keep the unshelled acorns for a while; blogger Kelly Coyne at Root Simple suggests drying them in pans or on a screen and then stashing them in mesh bags until you’re ready to use them. Some weevils might emerge while you wait; just throw away the nuts with holes.
As a point of reference: Five cups of ”sinker“ acorns gave me about 3 cups of nutmeats.
Step Three: Shell the Nuts
This is the hard part.
I tried using a regular nutcracker on my little gambel acorns but soon traded that in for a hammer. This year I gathered much bigger acorns from a white oak (Quercus alba), and a nutcracker works much better.
As you open the acorns, you probably will find some black spots and even a few wiggly grubs. Some nuts will be too gunked up to save, but some will have only small bits of damage you can remove with a knife.
If the nuts are dry, the meats may need to be soaked before use.
Step Four: Leach the Tannins
Boiling is the fastest way to eliminate the tannins, which give the acorn its bitter taste and can make a person sick. This was one of the easier steps for me, though it did make my kitchen smell briefly like a chemical plant.
To leach the tannins, I put my nuts in a pot, filled it with water twice as deep as the nuts, and simmered the nuts for about 15 minutes. While I waited, I boiled a second pot of water. After the nuts simmered, I strained them in a mesh sieve, rinsed them in hot water and dumped them in the second pot of boiling water for another round.
My nuts were good to eat after four rounds; more tannic acorns could require more rotations in the boiling water.
After leaching, spread the nuts (they will have turned reddish brown) on a cookie sheet and dry them in a warm oven so they don’t rot.
According to Coyne, this is the best leaching technique if you’re eating the acorns as a snack, in soups, or chopped and sprinkled on other food.
To make acorn flour for baking, cold leaching is the preferred option. This is a pretty complicated process, and there’s lots of instruction online. I may attempt this as the season progresses.
For my first successful harvest, I instead used boiled nutmeats in an acorn soup recipe by chef Hank Shaw, author of the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. At first I was skeptical. Eaten plain, the nuts were not very good (my 4-year-old daughter tried one and said, “Mmmm, tastes like a swimming pool”).
But the soup was pretty delicious. It had a strong nutty flavor and a rich taste of fall. It may seem anachronistic as temperatures linger in the high 90s into September, but hot or not, the acorns have arrived.