You may think that what you are about to read is a little nuts: The acorn — which irritates us in its ability to litter our lawns, driveways and gutters — is a perfect complex carbohydrate that goes unnoticed and is even cursed by us, our neighbors and landscapers year after year.
But did you know? Acorns are a quintessential Michigan food!
A few barrels of acorns gathered before winter will bring you an abundance of nuts that are nutrient-dense, filled with complex carbohydrates and packed with plant proteins. It takes effort to process the unpalatable, bitter nuts into a flavor-state that can be used in the kitchen, but to the discerning local foods chef, the effort is worth it.
Once leached in a water bath, acorn nutmeats have a flavor similar to the chestnut, and they can be used in soups and pulverized into nut butter, as well as ground into flour for baking.
“The acorn has a special place in my home. My family gathers them in our yard, on walks, and friends drop them off by the bag full. We shell acorns while watching football on Sunday or outside together in the park.”
— Lisa M. Rose
The acorn hasn’t always gone unnoticed. Across time, acorns have provided indigenous peoples with a versatile carbohydrate in a quantity that no other nut or carbohydrate source (pre-European introduction of wheat flour) could. But today, the convenience of quick and easy carbohydrates has resulted in this traditional food falling to the wayside.
The acorn has a special place in my home. My family gathers them in our yard, on walks, and friends drop them off by the bag full. We shell acorns while watching football on Sunday or outside together in the park. I also host cocktail parties where I haul out buckets of acorns to shell while friends catch up and mingle over drinks and cheese platters.
It is a nut that not only nourishes our bodies but also nourishes relationships and connectedness to the community around us.
I continue to find new ways to use this loved, local nut. I process enough to make about 10-15 pounds of flour each fall. I make a delicious acorn chai, blend acorns into my stovetop coffee with cream and chaga mushroom, and add ground acorns to my oatmeal to make a gruel.
Around Michigan, I am known for my acorn bread. It is one of my go-to ways to incorporate this nut into my home, and everyone that tries it loves it!
Acorns begin to drop around August and will fall in waves across the season. The first wave will be the tree’s castoffs — those nuts that won’t be that viable as a seed for a future oak tree. Generally, these castoffs will be the runts and have caps attached. Ignore these, there will be others to collect.
It’s the second and third waves that will really be the harvest and have you running up against the squirrels to gather them.
As you gather the acorns, make sure nuts with an obvious insect infestation are discarded. Gather only those with firm, clean and fresh-looking discs (the spot on top where the cap was once affixed). Also discard any with caps that appear dislodged, moldy or simply “off.”
Ask a forager which acorn they prefer for eating, and they will probably say white oak acorns are preferred, as there are fewer tannins in the nutmeat than those of the red oak. This is true.
However, red oaks can be tasty, too; the squirrels bury them in the ground to save through the winter, eating them only after snows have melted and leached the tannins from the nuts, rendering them delicious! I think this is culinary genius on their part and another instance of where humans can learn a tremendous amount by observing the activities of the natural world.
Regardless of species, I find both are edible and in a final dish, the species isn’t as significant as others have claimed. Gather away and save your energies for the next step: shelling and leaching the nutmeats.
Shelling and Leaching Acorns: A Nutty Job
Shelling acorns can be done tediously by hand, with a hammer or pair of pliers in front of a good TV show. I recommend investing in a hand-cranked nutcracker to process large batches if this becomes a yearly endeavor. Large pieces of nutmeats are easier to remove from the shell than crushed bits, so plan to smash accordingly.
The nutmeats will then need to be leached in water to wash the tannins from the nut and make it palatable. There are several methods for leaching, including a hot-water process and a cold-water process, each of which affects the final ground acorn product differently.
The hot-water process will leach the tannins faster and can be done on a stovetop over the course of a long weekend. First, finely chop the nutmeats in a blender. This will increase the surface area of the nut that touches the water and thus speeds us the leach time.
Then, simmer the finely chopped nutmeats in water at a 1 to 5 ratio and replace the water until the nutmeats are palatable and nutty, not bitter. Make a note that white oaks are less tannic than the red and will have a shorter leaching process. The nutmeats, once leached, can be fully dried in a warm oven or dehydrator for long-term preservation.
Preparing Acorns for Flour
To make bread from the acorns, the dehydrated nutmeats will need to be ground into flour. This can be done easily in a coffee grinder — simply toss a handful of dried nutmeats into the grinder and process it into a fine powder. Use immediately or freeze the remainder of the flour to extend its freshness.
The shelf life for fresh acorns is terribly short, so if you cannot get to the shelling and leaching immediately, they can be put in the freezer until you can. The processed flour also can be frozen to extend its freshness and prevent the flour from going rancid.
Acorn Banana Bread
1 cup all-purpose (or gluten-free) flour
1 cup processed acorn flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
¾ cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 ⅓ cups mashed overripe bananas
1-2 tablespoons cocoa powder, if desired
Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175 degrees Celsius). Lightly grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.
In a large bowl, combine the flours, baking soda and salt.
In a separate bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar. Stir in eggs and mashed bananas until well blended. Stir banana mixture into flour mixture, add a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder, if desired.
Pour batter into prepared loaf pan.
Bake in preheated oven for 60-65 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into center of loaf comes out clean.
Let bread cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack.
Lisa M. Rose is the author of three books including “Midwest Foraging” and “Midwest Medicinal Plants.” Her interest in ethnobotany and herbal medicine has taken her to study plants, people, health and their connection to place internationally. Rose leads foraging plant walks and teaches classes on edible and medicinal wild plants. Find her at burdockandrose.com