Sunday, November 7, 2010

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.

HOT

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.


COLD

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.


the testa:


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?

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13 Comments:

At November 7, 2010 at 2:21 PM , Anonymous Zoe said...

I was so happy to read this - someone recently told me about making candied acorns, so I've been pondering the idea. I did not know there was so much to know, but am glad I do now. I'm guessing from what you wrote about rancidity that it's too late to go looking for acorns at this point... And spice bush berries - is that Lindera? You can eat them? I have wanted to eat them before, but didn't know if I should. They smell so amazing. Thanks!

 
At November 7, 2010 at 2:27 PM , Blogger Ellen Zachos said...

I've read about the candied, too, but decided to try the savory way instead. And yes! Our old pal Lindera benzoin. They are SO tasty: an interesting combo of sweet and peppery.

Here's another recipe you might like to keep in mind for next year:
http://www.gardenbytes.com/2010/10/foraged-bread-fresh-for-fall.html

 
At November 7, 2010 at 3:03 PM , Blogger meemsnyc said...

I've never eaten acorns before. Something about those nuts with maggots on them growing up scares me. Sounds really interesting though. I'm not sure if I trust using my toilet tank for anything I put in my mouth. You're so brave.

 
At November 7, 2010 at 3:10 PM , Blogger Ellen Zachos said...

Meems, amazingly I found only 3 maggots in the whole batch of nuts, which I consider to be really good. I was more worried about the toilet tank than the maggots, which is why I emptied it and scrubbed it down first. After that I figured it was the same well water flowing into the tank as running out the faucet, so...

 
At November 7, 2010 at 8:31 PM , Blogger frank@new york city garden said...

aw, nuts, you're the real deal. Do you collect green or after they brown. As a kid I collected tons of green acorns just for kicks. It was like treasure.

 
At November 7, 2010 at 10:43 PM , Blogger Ellen Zachos said...

Thanks Frank, I collected them brown because that's the color they were when I found them. When I was little I'd almost always have a horse chestnut in my pockets. I loved the swirls of different browns and their smoothness was so reassuring to hold. Couldn't eat 'em though.

 
At November 8, 2010 at 7:34 AM , Blogger Mum said...

Surely I am the only mother in THE WORLD whose daughter has just processed acorns in a toilet tank! Wow. What an interesting story and how busy you must have been over the weekend. Who can I tell this story to? The Interrogation Club this afternoon? On NHPR this weekend there was a long and fascinating article about the implications of such a heavy acorn crop. We're gonna have bears in our back yard, if the story is true. Thanks for a good Monday morning wake-up. Love, Mum

 
At November 8, 2010 at 2:26 PM , Blogger Marie said...

I don't see why toilet tanks should be dirty. I mean, we don't pee in them...

Wow.

That's about it, really :-)

 
At November 8, 2010 at 6:15 PM , Anonymous Leda Meredith said...

So glad the bread turned out deliciously!

Every year that I DO the whole acorn thing, I promise myself never again. And then every year there's a mast year, I do it again, and really I'm not sorry. This year was not a mast year here in BK, so I passed, but I've no doubt there will be acorn-processing days in my future.

 
At November 8, 2010 at 11:14 PM , Blogger SaraGardens said...

How exciting - and now I'm not at all sorry I've left that 4yo son-of-mighty-oak in the yard (aside from its shockingly good fall color). We used to need hard hats in a mast year. Now I can't wait for the next one.

Mum of Ellen, I hope the Interrogation Club was suitably intrigued. And I hope you don't have bear in the yard any time soon!

 
At November 17, 2010 at 2:37 PM , Anonymous Janet Davis said...

Hi Ellen:
When you said "there are acorns in my toilet tank", I thought immediately to a recent episode with my husband's new car. He backed out of the drive and couldn't get it in gear. After having it towed to the dealership, the service manager phoned and said: "Something very strange....the mechanic says there's an acorn in the gear mechanism." I thought guiltily back to the hickory nuts I carried home in his new car - could they have slipped into the gear assembly somehow? A mechanic might not know the difference. But no, we decided, since we finally discovered that the acorn had come up from below. It was merely a fabulous year for acorn mast in the northeast -- and some evidently leap off the road into car innards! I just laughed when I saw your first sentence and thought..... and then she called the plumber and he said, "You've got acorns in your......"

 
At January 3, 2011 at 7:59 AM , OpenID puttingupwiththeturnbulls said...

Now, we've found you too! This is so interesting as we had an abundance of acorns this year. So, we collected a bunch, read a lot, boiled them as you describe, and then tasted them. Still super bitter...our acorns come from Red Oaks which we understand to be higher in tanins. Are you using white oak acorns? Great post...we still would like to try making acorn flour and acorn coffee. Now, we're wondering if we should try again!?!

 
At January 3, 2011 at 8:11 AM , Blogger Ellen Zachos said...

I confess, I'm not sure what I harvested for acorns. I picked them up at a neighbor's house because his acorns were bigger than mine! Next spring, I'll go check out his leaves, but I suspect they may be white oaks or some red-white hybrid. Oaks are notorious for interbreeding, so it's often hard to know which you've got. (Especially if you don't try very hard to find out.) I say it's definitely worth another try, maybe with acorns from a different tree. Now that I've done it once, I'm hooked.

 

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