An oak tree partially overhangs our deck. I am at an eye level with its branches, so I always notice if it is going to be a good acorn year. This fall, I could not let this obvious food source go to waste. I started reading about, and then eating, acorns.
The local Karuk Indians, along with many other Native American tribes, harvested “e’ekoons”—acorns—which were a major part of their diet. In the Karuk language, there are 19 different words describing acorns—for every stage of processing and every type of acorn.
When I first became interested in harvesting and eating acorns, I purchased Suellen Ocean’s Acorns and Eat ‘Em. But I lent the book some years ago and never got it back—sigh—so I was pleased to find the entire book downloadable for free (see Access). This book has a wonderful identification section that had me out and picking leaves and acorns from my nearby oaks. Turns out, I have a preponderance of mountain white oak (Quercus garryana), a single California black oak (Quercus Californica or Q. kelloggii), and I know where some tan-bark oaks (Quercus densiflora) grow.
Suellen, an experienced acorn eater, describes a very easy process to leach the bitter tannins from the nuts, making them ready for use as food. Some varieties of acorns have more tannins; some, much less. The acorns with less bitterness were, of course, highly prized by Native Americans.
This year as I watched the acorns grow from small green spots to an abundant crop, I knew I wanted to gather them. One reason was to process and eat them. The other reason was to hone my acorn-gathering skills so that next fall, when we are fattening our pastured pork, we can feed them acorns.
Acorns fed to hogs in the final fattening phase are called “mast,” and feeding mast to hogs is an ancient tradition. In the Middle Ages, European wooded areas were carefully surveyed to ascertain the number of hogs they would feed or fatten. Greenwoods were frequently designated as “one-hog” groves, “ten-hog” woodlands, or “hundred-hog” woods. Fattening hogs on acorns is called “pannage.”
What is thought by many to be the finest ham in the world is called jamón Ibérico de bellota (bellota means acorn). The wild black pigs of Iberia, Spain, feast on acorns in the last months of their lives and gain more than 50% of their butcher weight during this time. Nearly 60% of these hogs’ marbled fat contains healthy monotriglycerides, which lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol. Does this mean bacon could be good for me?
This year, I am harvesting just what I can process and use myself. I found that the best method for collecting is to wait until the acorns are golden, but still on the tree. They are so ripe that when you touch them they fall into your palm. My husband Bob-O and I spread a ground cloth under the tree branches. Then, using a long pole, we hit the branches smartly—a lot like the “amond knocking” harvest we used to do at my Aunt Anna’s orchard. This reminds me of an old joke: Do you know why people who grow almonds call them “amonds?” Because they knock the “L” out of them at harvest time.
The acorns readily fall onto the tarp, which can be emptied into a wheelbarrow. Go through your acorns and discard any with tiny black holes, which indicate an acorn weevil has already drilled a hole through the acorn and laid eggs inside—and ruined that nut for eating. Left with the other acorns, a ruined nut will spoil them, too, when the larva hatch.
Acorns have a very tough shell, and removing it is tedious. Forget about multitasking—just listen to a recorded book or music while you toil. So far, the best way I’ve found to get the nut meat separated from the shell is to cut the shell in half lengthwise with a sharp paring knife, then pick the meat out. This yields large pieces of acorn to process in whatever way I choose.
Immediately dropping the hulled nuts into a bowl of water results in leaching, which you can see from the water taking on a brown tinge. The meat is combined with a little water (at a 3:1 ratio) in a blender until it becomes a coarse acorn meal. I use a quart pitcher to store the acorn-and-water mixture in the fridge and change the water every day for a week. At this point, the acorns are ready to use in any number of recipes (Suellen’s book has 35) or freeze in convenient-sized amounts for use later. The acorn nut can also be hulled, bagged, and frozen for later leaching.
Sprouted acorns are even easier to shell by cracking the shell at the pointed end. Suellen prefers hers this way and will soak buckets of acorns to get them to sprout. According to Suellen, an acorn with a two-inch-long sprout is fine, as long as the acorn nut meat hasn’t turned green. The acorns I opened were sprouting just enough to crack the shell for me.
Acorns have a low sugar content and a sweet, nutty aftertaste. Substitute acorn meal for approximately one-fourth of the flour in bread and stew recipes. Since acorns contain natural sweetness, reduce any other sweeteners in the recipe by one-fourth. Acorn grits can be used in place of nuts in cookies, brownies, and bread. Acorns are a reliable source of carbohydrates, protein, six vitamins, eight minerals, and 18 amino acids, and they are lower in fat than most other nuts.
Browsing the Web, I found acorn recipes like acorn soba noodles, orecchiette with a mushroom ragu, cookies, pancakes, soups, cakes, and, of course, acorn bread. My friend Myna still raves about the acorn enchiladas I brought to a potluck dinner. Acorns as food can be a real conversation stimulator.
I certainly was able to easily gather enough acorns for my own use, and, this year, I could have gathered many more for feeding pigs. Whether or not next year will be such a great acorn year is an unknown. But I am going to pay attention to see if a heavy acorn crop indicates a long, cold winter.
Kathleen Jarschke-Schultze is fermenting apple cider vinegar at her off-grid home in northernmost California.
Acorns and Eat ‘Em • bit.ly/AcornsEatEm