Acorns: two ways
There are acorns in my toilet tank.
Well not really. I just took them out, rinsed them well, and now they're in the dehydrator. But I couldn't resist the above as an opening sentence. I like drama.
As a forager, I view acorns as a milestone. They are notoriously labor intensive to process but so nutritionally and historically rich (not to mention delicious) that I knew I had to try. In fact, I'm a little embarassed it's taken me so long.
2010 was a mast year in NE PA. That means a year of great acorn abundance. Walk barefoot in my front yard and you're in for some pain. Before we left for Greece, I casually collected about two quarts of large nuts from a neighbor's deck. I hadn't planned it; we were leaving the country in two days and I knew I had no time! But there we were, there the acorns were, and it was so darned simple I couldn't NOT do it. Plus, since these acorns had never touched the ground, I figured there might be less chance of them being maggot infested.
I bagged them and put them in the freezer. Acorns need to be either dried or frozen if they're not going to be used right away. Because they have a high oil content, they turn rancid quickly if held at room temperature without being processed. Since you need several days to prep the nuts, this weekend was my first chance.
First I read: all my foraging books, tons of internet stuff. I knew it was going to be a lot of work and I wanted to get it right. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of INcomplete information out there, but relying on my old faithful Sam Thayer (for an education in acorns, read his acorn chapter in Nature's Garden) and a post by Green Deane at Eat The Weeds, I came up with the following:
-hot leaching acorns is fast (relatively) and easy
-hot leached acorns aren't appropriate for flour as they won't bind to form a dough once the nuts have been heated at more than 150 F
-hot leached acorns may still produce a dark liquid even after being leached of all bitterness, so rely on your taste buds rather than the color of the leaching water
-cold leaching acorns is slow and more labor intensive
-cold leached acorns make a flour that will bind in a bread dough but should still not be used 100% in place of wheat flours; it contains no gluten and will not rise
After shelling the acorns (between layers of towel, with a hammer) I decided to try both.
Half the acorns went into a large pot with 3 times (by volume) as much boiling water as acorns. A second pot of water also went on the boil. Apparently the nuts must be transferred from boiling water to boiling water. Transferring from boiling to cold (and then re-boiling) may lock in the tannins we're trying to get rid of. I boiled in six changes of water for 30 minutes each. In the end, the water was still light tan, but since the nuts had no trace of a bitter taste, I dubbed them done.
Next, they went into the dehydrator for 14-16 hours. Since these were hot leached, I planned to use them in place of nuts in The Joy of Cooking's nut bread recipe. Leda served me this years ago and it made an impression! She also suggested adding 1 tsp of ground spice bush berry, which I did. The bread is delicious with a taste that's impossible to forget. It isn't a sweet bread, but it isn't exactly savory either. It's dense and dark, the perfect foil for homemade jalapeno jelly.
Most people do their cold leaching by grinding shelled acorns in water and creating a slurry which they then pass through layers of cheese cloth. They dry the resulting mush, then grind to a powder. I found the slurry idea a little daunting, but I was intrigued by Deane's description of the toilet tank method. Despite the fact that Sam warns cold leaching is hard to do with un-evenly sized pieces of nut (which is what I'd be doing), I decided to try. Laziness triumphed over caution.
I loaded a few cups of shelled acorns into a jelly bag,
emptied and scrubbed the toilet tank, then placed the nuts inside and refilled the tank. Each flush would run fresh water through the acorns, hopefully leaching them enough to get rid of any bitter taste.
I noticed the water in the toilet bowl had a slight pink color (the leaching water from the tank moves into the bowl with each flush)
and after 24 hours I rinsed and tested the nuts. Still a little bitter, so back into the toilet they went. This morning, after 48 hours, the nuts were without a trace of bitterness. They're now in the dehydrator at 125 F, so they should be appropriate for flour.
This is the papery nut covering, similar to what you'll find on a peanut. The repeated boils of hot leaching removed most of them and I peeled off the few remaining pieces by hand. Cold leaching left the testa in tact, but they rub off almost inadvertently as you're moving the nuts from the dehydrator to the storage jar. I find mixed opinions on whether removal is necessary, but since they're rumored to hold a lot of tannins and since it's so easy to rub them off, why not? Maybe next time I'll do a taste test and see if it's necessary.
Both the hot leached and cold leached nuts will be refrigerated whole after drying; I'll grind as needed. Not sure the cold storage is necessary, but I keep all flour in the fridge and why take chances with such a valuable foraged food?
I won't have time to try the acorn flour for a few more weeks, and until then I'll be scouring the interweb for the most worthy of recipes. Suggestions anyone?