This summer, my family and I moved to our homestead. We were not able to get a garden into the rocky, wild ground, but somehow we’ve had a fantastic fall harvest and have started accumulating jars of dry goods from the plenty. How was this possible? One surprising word… acorns.
When we had first discussed moving to our 12 acres to live sustainably and self-sufficiently, one of the biggest parts of the plan was establishing responsible food security. Among all our ideas about free-range chickens, orchards, and hugelkultur swales, we had not thought of foraging for acorns as a part of our diet.
After seeing the huge harvest that came from all of our well-established oak trees, however, we’ve realized that we’re sitting in the middle of great bounty. So it may seem like a nutty proposition (sorry for that pun), but we have decided to jump head-first into figuring out how to make acorns a big part of our future menus. We got through this process with entirely manual tools and off-grid sources of heat, so rest assured that if you are interested, you have what it takes to do this, too!
Acorns Have A History
The idea of using acorns as an important part of the diet is nothing new or even really all that adventurous. It’s just something that has been largely forgotten, I think.
You can find acorns as a part of the gastronomic lexicon of many different countries across the world, from Italy to Korea, but none of the traditions fascinates me as much as that of the Native Americans. Many different nations – particularly the Hupa, Karok, Miwok, Pomo, and Yurok of northern California – use acorns as a part of the diet.
The interesting thing about this is that many food cultures are centralized around a starchy staple crop, whether it be corn, rice, or wheat. In order to depend on those staples, however, you need to start living an agricultural lifestyle.
Those northern communities were able to maintain non-agricultural lives because acorns filled that starchy staple need. This gives me confidence that we can learn how to draw a significant source of nutrition from these plentiful nuts. Though we’re still novices at cooking with this material, I have hope that we’ll get better at processing and using it every year.
Acorns: A Sustainable Option
It also gives me a bit of pause. I reflect on our decades in the city, and I remember that there were oak trees EVERYWHERE. The knowledge of how many toxins can be found in flour and how many resources are used to produce agricultural crops is in stark contrast to the realization that every September and October, hundreds of tons of edible food falls to the ground in every neighborhood and park.
This food requires no input but what comes to it naturally in sun and rain, so it’s certainly a super-sustainable source of sustenance (say that five times fast). I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say this to the homesteading community, but what would it do to the world if more people took advantage of these free food resources and started taking better responsibility for their own nourishment?
What if we invested in long-term perennial food crops that are largely self-maintaining, rather than pouring resources (and chemicals) into annual food crops of debatable safety? It’s food for thought, certainly. Much more than a trailside nibble for folks to Instagram their wilderness-y prowess, acorns may be one of America’s most underutilized food resources.
So without further ado, let me share what we learned and how we were able to convert acorns into delicious food.
Part One: Foraging For The Plentiful Harvest
Before I go into our experience collecting buckets of acorns this fall, I need to start with why we started this endeavor in the first place.
My husband and I have always been interested in foraging for wild edibles, and as we have researched and learned about the abundant food beneath our feet, we came across two absolutely, wonderfully, fabulously useful books by a guy named Samuel Thayer.
Thayer doesn’t just research the plants he talks about – he eats them every day and writes with the same sort of real understanding. One of his most beloved wild edibles is acorns, and he wrote about them with such appreciation that we knew we’d have to try it someday.
Look Out For Oak Trees
In the United States, there are quite a few different species of oak trees, and many of them vary by climate and region. The lovely thing is, however, that if it’s an acorn, it’s edible, no matter what species it comes from.
In our area of the Ozarks, we seem to be dominated by white oaks, but you may find that the oaks that populate your region are quite different. Regardless, the process of collecting, processing, and eating is much the same.
When To Collect
So, the first thing to consider when foraging for acorns is the timing. Oaks have two distinct phases when they drop acorns. An early drop and then the good drop. Early in the fall, you may notice that oak trees are dripping with acorns for the first time – this is not the time to collect nuts.
If you do, you’ll be incredibly disappointed to find that every single one is bad. In some fantastically designed, inexplicable way, oak trees know what nuts aren’t developing well or are infected with insects, and so they rid themselves of the unworthwhile nuts as soon as they can. Many of these acorns will still have their caps firmly attached (a sure sign of a bad nut).
It’s the second drop you want to watch for, usually happening sometime in October. These nuts are the good ones! You can crack open a few acorns with a rock to test them if you’re not sure, but we found that about 90 percent of the acorns we gathered from the second drop were absolutely perfect.
Methods For Collecting
Now, there are some options when it comes to gathering. At the beginning, we hunkered down under the most productive oak trees and picked up acorns by hand. Thayer recommends this, as it’s quite easy to sort through acorns by sight.
If you do read his books, you’ll see that he has listed a near encyclopedic rundown of how to tell a good acorn from a bad one. It basically comes down to inspecting the disc on the top for dark marks, watching for weevil holes, and ignoring ones with the caps still attached.
Even so, we opted for a much faster approach, using the Garden Weasel Nut Gatherer. Since we’ll also be planting hazelnut trees this spring, having a means of gathering a lot of nuts quickly is going to be a huge time-saver for us. We didn’t mind buying an extra tool if it would prove to be useful.
Though the collecting tool is indiscriminate in whether it’s picking up a good acorn, rotten acorn, or rock, the time it saves in not having to bend over and the speed of gathering made it totally worth using, in my book. Under a good tree, I could fill a five-gallon bucket in under an hour! Granted, there was the odd stick and stone in my pail, but I easily sorted those out when we got back inside and began to process the nuts.
Part Two: Processing The Haul
Once you have your haul of nuts, it’s important to get them drying or processed as soon as possible. Since acorns are naturally rather moist, they can go bad really quickly when piled in a bucket. It would be such a shame if your days of hard work collecting acorns resulted in a bucket of mold!
If you can’t process them immediately, at least lay them out flat in a single layer somewhere where air can circulate around them.
Catch The Grubs!
Also, be aware that acorn weevil larvae will appear soon – even some good-looking nuts are secretly host to the little grubby nut-destroyers.
The grubs are not harmful in the least, as they can’t re-infect other acorns, and they don’t bite. We actually collected them from the bottoms of our buckets and gave them to our awkward teenage chicks as a treat, so it was an excellent “problem” for us.
If you don’t have an animal cleanup crew, be aware that the grubs’ sole desire is to get back into the ground so that they can pupate and infect next year’s crop of acorns. It might be best to dispose of them somewhere far from your choice oak trees.
Now, the first step we took to process our acorns was to wash them. I filled up half of our kitchen sink with water and dumped several scoops of acorns into it. Immediately, most of the acorns dropped to the bottom. These are likely to be good.
The Float Test
You’ll find that the acorn caps and many bad acorns float on the surface – this makes the first step of sorting quite easy! Take note, however, that almost all dried acorns will float, so if you dry your acorns before processing them, the float test won’t be useful to you.
I put all the reject acorns to the side. These were acorns with caps attached, visible exit holes from acorn grubs, cracks, or dark areas on the top disc. They were eventually crushed up and given to our chickens as a treat – they loved picking out the good pieces and, of course, enjoyed the grubs with relish.
Drying The Acorns
All the acorns that looked good were then spread out in a single layer on several cookie sheets. I dried them in front of our woodstove for several hours, but you can also toast them in the oven at 175 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour and a half. This served to dry them off and warm them for cracking.
Cracking The Acorns
Now, there are several options when it comes to cracking loads of acorns. It can be as simple as smashing them open with a hammer on a flat surface or as sophisticated as buying a specialized nutcracker for the purpose.
Since we are truly trying to make nuts a part of our life, we decided to invest in a tool that would last us a long time. The Davebilt nutcracker is, in our opinion, the best nutcracker that could be used for this.
Hand-cranked, made in America and built to last, this is a solid tool that we’ll be able to pass on to our kids and is good for most any type of nut. So even though it runs close to $200, we decided that the cost was worth the time and energy that it saved! We were able to crack several pans worth of acorns in an hour.
It was during this stage that I did the bulk of my sorting. It’s inevitable that some bad acorns will ride along with the good ones, but once they’re cracked open, the good is super-easy to separate from the bad.
Any that were moldy, had clear evidence of being nibbled by bugs or were covered with dark spots went into the chicken/compost bucket, and all the tan, waxy, nutmeats went into a large stock pot so that they could be leached.
During this stage, most of the testas (the dark brown, papery coating over the nut) also came off. Some sources say that you must remove every trace of the testa to have tasty flour, but I found that the odd piece here and there really didn’t make a difference.
This next part is important. It’s possible to eat a single acorn raw with no ill effect, but I don’t know if you’d want to repeat the experience. The high amount of tannins in acorns make the raw product quite unpalatable. Leaching – soaking the acorns in water to separate the nut from its water-soluble tannins – makes them edible!
Leaching The Acorns
There are several types of leaching, including chemical leaching, cold leaching, and hot leaching. I’ll only be detailing hot leaching here because it’s the only one I’ve tried so far. Thayer (and many other online sources) explains the steps for all the methods.
While hot leaching is a little more convenient than both chemical and cold leaching, it denatures some of the components of the finished flour. This results in a dark brown flour that won’t stick together on its own like wheat flour does. Cold-leached flour takes a bit more time and a few extra steps, but the final product will hold together into a dough.
We hope to experiment with all types of flour eventually, but for the time being, we processed all of our acorns with the hot leaching method and will be mixing it with wheat flour if ever we need a dough that holds its own.
So, to hot-leach acorns, you need to boil them in several changes of water. Again, we did this on our woodstove, but you can do this in a conventional oven or over a fire – it’s up to you! After the water turns a rich, brown color, dump the water, refill the pot, and boil them again. Acorns take anywhere from three to more than ten water changes to have a sufficient amount of tannin removed. You’ll have to judge for yourself when they’re ready.
My test was to sample a nut and see how bitter it was on my tongue. When they tasted sweet, somewhat maple-like, and not at all bitter, I considered them done. Some resources say that you need to wait until the water runs clear, but I found that this was not the case with our acorns.
Grinding The Acorns
Now that the acorns are leached, it’s time to turn them into flour. You’ll need to grind them up; twice if you want fine flour. First, we took the damp acorns and ran them through an old-fashioned, hand-crank meat grinder. They’re really easy to find at antique markets and thrift stores – we bought ours for $4!
Spread the damp nut meal back over your cookie sheet and allow it to dry completely. We placed ours at the base of the woodstove and stirred it several times throughout the day. With a fire burning during the morning and night, the meal dried within two days.
You can also do this in a dehydrator or in a conventional oven at 170 degrees Fahrenheit until the meal is bone-dry. Don’t rush this part! If you store the flour even slightly wet, it may mold and all your hard work will end up in the compost pile.
The end result will be a very coarse flour. This can be used as-is, or it can be run through a flour mill or coffee grinder to produce finer flour for baking.
It’s finally ready! By this point, you are undoubtedly hungry, and rightly so. Let’s look into some delicious uses for this food.
Part Three: Cooking with Acorns
The flavor of hot-leach acorn flour is undeniably wild, slightly sweet, and vaguely reminiscent of maple syrup. I find that it adds a unique, malty note to baked goods and is very enjoyable.
Acorn Sourdough Boule
- 3/4 cup sourdough starter
- 1 ½ cups warm, filtered water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups whole-wheat flour
- 1 cup coarse-ground acorn flour
(Note: The amount of flour you need to use varies depending on the day’s humidity. I find that I use far less flour in the summer than I do in the winter.)
- Add sourdough starter and filtered water to a large bowl. Mix thoroughly with your hand.
- Add salt, then flour, one cup at a time, and continue to mix with your hand. The dough should be wet. If it is dry or hard to work with, add more water.
- Let the dough rest 10 minutes.
- Wet your hands and knead the dough in the bowl. It may seem counter-intuitive, but whole wheat needs to be kneaded with water, not flour. Trust me on this one! Knead the dough in the bowl for 4 minutes, wetting your hands as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. If it is hard to knead at this point, you’ll want to introduce more water, about a teaspoon at a time, until it is workable. It’s okay if it feels slightly “too wet.” It will soak it up, guaranteed.
- Allow to rest another 5 minutes.
- Wet your hands again and knead for 4 more minutes. You’ll probably notice that the dough is now smooth, supple, and not as sticky.
- Form into a round, cover with a towel, and put someplace warm for the next four hours.
- The dough should have risen quite a bit during this time. Punch down, then gently shape into a round ball by pulling the edges into the center.
- Line a large bowl with a linen towel, then dust the dough liberally with flour. Lay the dough in the bowl and put back in the warm place to rise again for at least 2 hours.
- Preheat your oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit.
- If using a baking sheet, both grease and scatter flour over the surface before gently flipping the bread onto it. If using a pizza stone, dust your pizza peel with flour before turning the bread out onto it.
- With a sharp, serrated knife, score the top of the bread to allow for expansion during baking.
- Slide the bread into the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
- Lower the temperature to 425F° and bake another 20 minutes.
- Your bread is done if the internal temperature has reached 200F°. You can check with a meat thermometer or use the traditional method of tapping the bottom and listening for a hollow sound.
- If you can resist the urge, allow the bread to cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before slicing so that it can finish internally steaming.
- Serve with butter and a fruit preserve.
- Once cool, wrap in a towel and store in a cool, dark place. It should stay good for about 4 days.
- Acorn Porridge by Adam Haritan
- Acorn Griddle Cakes by Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking
- Samuel Thayer’s Website
- Nature’s Garden, Samuel Thayer
- Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking, Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs
- Nut Gatherer, Nut Weasel
- Davebilt Nut Cracker
- North American Indian Recipes – Acorn Recipes & Facts!, The People’s Paths