Acorns: A Fundamental Food of Our Past and Future

I have a whole new reverence for the mighty Oak after eating acorns. Growing slow and patient, this tree has some of the most nourishing seeds, and strongest wood in our environment. The way I see life has been changed because of this tree.

In September and October I process acorns with the ones I love, and remember the cultures who lived with them so closely for thousands of years. Our very existence today is owed so gratefully to the food, medicine, and other myriad uses of Oak.

A large majority of North America was an Oak dominant forest when European settlers first arrived. This wasn’t just a natural causation, indigenous people managed these ecosystems in this way with intention.

Oaks allowed them to have access to an extremely nourishing food source. Acorns are a complete protein, containing all of the amino acids that our body can’t generate. The presence of these magnificent trees actually determined where cultures of the past would live; some resources say that as much as 50% of their diet was acorns.

Now this is no ordinary wild food. It’s abundance in quantity, nourishment, and storability is incalculable to any other food, wild or not. It takes time, patience, and slow observation to enjoy these foods…Which is quite reflective of the spirit of Oak tree herself. She lives this way and her fruits are an embodiment of her growth.

The acorns of the Oak do drop every year, but usually every three years they release a massive bounty. This is so squirrels and other animals with full acorn bellies will be so overwhelmed with food that they will bury acorns to save for times of scarcity. Often they forget and thus become the Oaks stewards. Oaks also do this so that animals won’t rely on their food every single year, and will leave the trees to themselves in years where they don’t produce very many nuts. Sometimes they will actually intentionally open their flowers before typical frosts hinder so that their crop will fail. All of this ensures the Oak can reproduce and continue. It also displays their inherent intelligence.

Within days of those acorns dropping, they can become overtaken by weevils, mould, and other defects. This demands steadfast attention to the acorns while harvesting and a slow respect. In a good year, as many as 10 000 acorns can fall from a mature Oak tree. This abundance of nutrient rich nuts is such a rare gift in the world of wild foods available, that it is almost infallible that our current culture has cut down so many to grow wheat or corn. I promise, it is so worth your exploration and time to work with acorns. Gathering them with my loved ones is a gateway to a great memory of cultures all over the world gathered together, giving their labour of love to this ever giving gift.

There are different ways of processing after harvest, requiring you to leach out tannins, crack them, and grind them (if you want to make nutrient rich flour). It is what people would call “a lot of work”. But the gifts are much greater than any amount of work you can put into it. The greater the gift, the greater the responsibility. Oak emanates this message for me. People of the past knew this, and people of the present are working hard to reclaim it. The Oak somehow becomes even greater to us as these truths and acorns sit in our bellies.

As climate change prevails, and growing conventional food crops becomes increasingly challenging, we are going to be hard pressed to rely on the foods that actually grow around us without our intervention. There is nothing more sustainable than local foods that grow with strength and vigour, and don’t require us to grow them in the same way that so many of our everyday food crops do. Oaks don’t need extra irrigation, fertilizer, cultivation, and they house an entire ecosystem in their branches. They give us food, wood, breath. As more and more people remember the integrity of Quercus species as a staple food, the more resilient we will become in an uncertain future of food sustainability.

For the entire agricultural revolution we’ve been destroying great stands of oaks, maples, and entire ecosystems so that we can grow plants that are giving us some of the exact same nutrient capacities of the ecosystems we have destroyed, and in many circumstances, far less. These ecosystems that were before wheat, corn and soy, are far superior in nutrients and life giving nourishment. It’s not about solely food quantity anymore. It’s not about how much food we can grow. It’s about the quality of the food, and ecosystem resiliency where the food grows, too. In a monocrop of corn all of these things are vacant.

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How to Harvest

I will focus on Quercus Rubra, because it is the Oak that I most often harvest from in my area of the world. However, almost all of these experiences are transferable to other species of Oak. You can begin to collect this nourishing food in September in Northern Ontario.  The best time to go searching for them is after a windy day. You can also climb up into trees and knocking down the acorns with a stick, which sounds like a pretty sweet date night for you and your love (or dog) to me. However, you have to be sure they’re good to eat!

Here’s some ways to tell if the acorn isn’t good to eat:

  1. Small holes in the shell. If there is a hole, this means weevils have made their way in and the acorn is going to rot soon. However, the weevils are edible too!
  2. A strongly attached cap on the acorn. This is an aborted acorn or a defect seed. These are usually some of the first acorns that the tree drops.
  3. If you aren’t sure and don’t want to risk collecting bad acorns, drop them in a bucket of water. If the acorn sinks, it’s good. If it floats, it isn’t! Dry them off soon after you do this test. If you’re interested in growing oak trees, this test is also useful when determining if an acorn is good to plant or not.

The quantity of the crop is determined by the year, and some years are better than others. However, one good tree can produce hundreds of pounds of acorns. What an incredible gift. There are many different species of Oak locally, and the white Oak group is known to have less bitter acorns than the red Oak group.

As much as the white Oak family is known to have less bitter acorns, all acorns can be used. Red Oaks have a longer season to harvest than the white Oak group, they dry easier, and they’re less prone to spoilage. The White Oak group germinates in the Fall, whereas the Red Oak group germinates the following spring, widening the window for potential collecting.

Processing

I promise, all of these steps to eating are well worth it! They’re also very simple with a bit of guidance.

1) Wash the acorns from debris, soil, leaf matter etc.

2) Dry the acorns. Trying to shell the acorns before drying is more difficult and takes a lot more time than if they were dried. Drying allows the nut meat inside to shrink a little, thus making the shelling much easier. Spread out acorns in one layer on baking sheets, container lids, or screens. Don’t stack the acorns on top of each other because you want every single one to be able to soak up the warmth! Drying them near a wood stove or some other kind of heating appliance is ideal. This process takes a couple of weeks to a few months for the acorns to dry all the way through. You’ll be able to tell when they’re dry because there won’t be any softness at all. They will be hard to the touch. These Acorns can be stored after this drying process for a long time, some people even suggest up to 10 years! And because they are protected in this shell, they do not lose their nutritional content. Indigenous people of North America used to store the acorns after a bumper crop year in granaries they created out of cedar bark and wormwood, or in the hollow heart of trees. Be weary of squirrels!

3) Crack the shells. Yes, there are fancy machines out there that can do this. But who needs that when you have plenty of rocks and pieces of wood around you! Find a flat surface or create one with a piece of wood, and smack your rock onto the acorn. After a few tries, you will get the hang of how hard you need to hit the acorn in order to remove the shell. Line up all the acorns and smack them one after the other. You’ll come up with your own techniques to create a good flow. You’ll notice when you crack Red Oaks they have a skin surrounding the nut. Once dry they are easy to peel off. Some that are harder to peel off you can just grind them up anyway. Noticed that once you start to leach them, the peels will float to the surface of the water you’re using.

4) Leach the shelled nuts. There are two different general methods to leach the tannins and phytic acid out of acorns, which is essential before eating. These two anti-nutrients impair minerals from being absorbed into the body. These two methods of leaching, hot leaching and cold leaching are both effective and used for differing purposes. They each have their disadvantages and advantages. There are also many variations between these two methods that have been used throughout history. Animals such as squirrels have created their own methods and bury their acorns in the ground while the rain water runs through. Thus, they plant beautiful trees whilst preparing to store their meals.

Hot method is great if you’re in a survival situation and need the acorns processed that day. When it comes to the Red Oak acorns, they require to be chopped into smaller pieces to quicken up the leaching process. They are known to be one of the more bitter acorns so this helps drastically. One time I tried to do it with whole acorns and ended up changing the water more than a dozen times. Perhaps with other types of Oak it will be fine to omit chopping them, but with Red Oak definitely chop them into smaller pieces.

In regards to different applications, you can add the hot leached to a fermented cheese (see Pascal Baudars recipe for Acorn Cheese), to a stuffing on Thanksgiving, or to blend into a veggie taco mixture for extra protein and nutrients, or just for snacking right away. However, don’t use this method for flour. Boiling water happens to leach out some important starches in the acorns, and the resulting flour won’t stick to itself like the acorns processed with cold water.

  1. Chop shelled acorns into small pieces.
  2. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Also have a kettle near by so you can boil water quicker and make the process flow. Putting boiled acorns into cold water will bind the tannins to the acorn and they will stay bitter.
  3. Once boiled for 15 minutes, pour out the water with the acorns remaining in the pot. The water will be brown in colour.
  4. Add in the next pot of boiled water and repeat this process as many times as you need until acorns are no longer bitter when you taste them. When they’re no longer bitter, drain off and have yourself a snack, or add them to other recipes.

Tannic Water 

If you use the hot method, here’s some uses for the water you would pour off. The water has a variety of uses. Small quantities can be added to fermented beverages and foods to ensure no bad bacteria enters. Tannic water is antiviral and antiseptic. It can be used as a wash for skin rashes, skin irritations, burns, cuts, abrasions and poison ivy.

Cold Method

This is great if you don’t mind a longer time period for acorn processing. It has many benefits. It leaves many nutrients intact that would be lost through the hot method. Plus it is the only method you should use for flour because when you do the hot method, the starch that behaves like gluten is transformed and no longer usable in this way. The cold method is great for bread, pizza dough, COOKIES, pie crust, acorn pasta, dumplings, anything that involves flour. Experiment and find what works best for you.

There are many ways of doing the cold method. People of the past used baskets made of trees to hold the acorns in a moving river, and this leached out the tannins. In whatever method you choose, try to mimic this concept of water running through the nuts.

Steps

  1. Once you’ve shelled your acorns, mash up the nut meats in your blender. You can also use a mortar and pestle. If you have a mother load of acorns, find a large rock with a concave top, and a tall log that you can smash the nuts with. Find what works best for you.
  2. Once you have your acorn meal or flour take a moment to smell it. It is the most incredible nutty, hearty, bread-like smell. Add it to a big bowl and add cold water. There is no exact measurement here, just leave a few inches free in the bowl for the water and for the flour to expand.
  3. Mix it around well. Over time the acorns and the water will separate.
  4. Every morning and every evening pour out the water and add new water in, or at least once a day. Be careful as to not pour out the flour. Mix around each time you add in new water.
  5. Keep tasting after 4 days and once the flour has no trace of bitterness you’ll be ready to use it right away in a dish, or dehydrate it for use later on.

Dehydrate

After squeezing out your acorn meal in cheese cloth, spread it out in your dehydrator trays and set it to the lowest setting. Ensure it doesn’t go over 150 degrees F. This will take 8-14 hours depending on a number of variables such as house temperature, etc. Keep an eye on it and spread it out as it dries. It will seem quite dry after a short while, but let it go for a few hours a longer so it’s completely dry.

Storage

Many Native Americans preferred bitter acorns to sweet ones because they stored better.  It is the tannins that help to preserve them. If dried properly, acorns in their shells can last for 3-10 years. Think of the way you would store vegetable seeds; store in a relatively cool and dry place. Shelled acorns should be put in the freezer to increase their longevity, as well as flours. However, I’ve had dry flour for a month or so, but used it all up. Perhaps it can last longer.

Giving Back; How to Grow Oak Trees 

When it comes to planting acorns, start by visiting a Red Oak tree in the early Spring. There will be many acorns you’ll notice that have cracked due to a newly born sprout emerging. Collect these ones and ensure the sprout is looking healthy and green. Fill a pot with soil and moisten the soil with water. Lay the sprouted acorn down on the top of the soil so that the sprout is pointed sideways. Push it into the soil slightly. You should still be able to see the acorn on top of the soil.

Check the soil everyday with your finger and if it feels dry water it. Also pick up the pot and feel how heavy it is. If it feels quite heavy then avoid watering. All of these things come with practice and getting to know the plant you are taking care of. Watering is typically the #1 reason how people kill the plants they take care of.

Once the Oak tree has grown for a couple of months, plant out in your backyard, forest, or abandoned lot. This tree has the ability to feed, nourish, be a beautiful habitat, and an intergenerational legacy. Recognize the beauty and power in giving back.

Nutritional Profile

Acorns are high in Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, and contain an array of B complex vitamins. It is also a complete protein and contains all 8 essential amino acids that our body can’t generate itself. This is a food that has been eaten for thousands of years, and its nutrition embodies this.

Acorn cookies!

Other Uses

You can use the shells as a fire starter! They light up beautifully. Try them after you’ve laid down a base of some finer materials, and watch the oily shells spark.

References

  1. Thayer, S. Natures Garden; A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. (2010). Birchwood, WI: Foragers Harvest Press
  2. Meredith, L. (2014) Northeast Foraging; 120 Wild and Flavourful Edibles From Beach Plums to Wineberries. Timber Press Portland Oregon.
  3. Peterson, L. (1977). Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants. Boston, New York. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  4. Mackinnon, Kershaw, Arnason, Owen, Karst, Hamersley, Chambers. (2014). Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada New Edition. Edmonton, AB: Lone Pine
  5. Baudar, P. The New Wildcrafted Cuisine; Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir. (2016) White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green Publishing.

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