(Posted in its original form on Sep. 22nd, 2009 at my Livejournal)
For the longest time I’ve been fascinated with the concept of acorns for food.
The seed (haha!) must have been planted in my mind when I was very young; my cousins who lived in the country – I was a New York City boy – had this lumbering black dustmop named Puffy who would devour acorns that he was given. I thought this terribly funny, since they were so bitter (naturally, being kids, we tried them!) And of course, the archetypical squirrel is always burying acorns.
Years later, having become a gastronome of sorts, the advent of the internet revived my curiosity, and I determined to find some acorn flour at some online store and try making bread or pancakes or what not. Guess what? You can’t find acorn flour for sale. Acorn starch, yes – but that’s different. There is, however, no dearth of information out there on how the native Americans used to process acorns, and so I archived off a few pages and determined to make the experiment at some point.
In 2009, while on one of my rambles up in the foothills north of Salt Lake, I stumbled across several groves of scrub oak that were replete with ripe, brown acorns, and managed to gather about 3 pounds of them.
The trick when gathering acorns is to get them when they’re brown enough to be ripe, but before the acorn weevils have gotten into them. As a result, it’s recommended to gather about ⅓ more acorns than you think you’re going to need. So if you see an acorn that looks like this:
you know it’s already occupied, and you don’t want to bother cracking it. Unless, of course, you’re interested in what goes on in an acorn after it falls – there is a fascinating article in the June, 1989 issue of National Geographic entitled “Life in a Nutshell”, which I recommend to all budding entomologists. If, however, that’s not your bag, the normal reaction is going to be “Eww”. Just be aware that some acorns which look sound are going to be compromised anyway:
Depending on the damage, part of the nut can often be salvaged.
So get yourself a nutcracker  and go about shelling your acorns. Like chestnuts, acorns have an interior brown skin which sometimes must be scraped off, but most of the time it just pops off with the husk. Certain varieties – I gathered nuts from a number of different groves – have the membrane in between the two halves of the kernel, so that will have to be removed as well.
When you’re done, you’ll have a nice bunch of acorns to work with.
I would have had a few more, but I ended up hucking out about ⅕ of what I had gathered… I just got so tired of shelling them, and all I had left were the smaller ones (see Note 1 below).
Be aware that like apples, acorns will go brown in the air quickly, so you may look in your bowl and think that a lot of them were bad to start with. However, if you were careful, the brown spots are not bug damage but simple oxidation. And if you missed a spot or two, hey – extra protein.
The next step is leaching out the tannin. According to Peggy Spring, an education coordinator with the San Antonio Natural Area Parks, “the Texas oaks reported to have the sweetest taste include Emory oak (Q. emoryi), which is so mild it can be used without processing, white oak (Q. alba), plateau live oak (Q. fusiformis), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), and chinkapin oak (Q. mulenbergii). The acorns of each of these oaks (mostly white oaks) mature in one year, which may account for their lower tannic acid content. Red oak acorns (like Texas Red Oak) take two years to mature.” How bitter are your acorns? Only one way to find out – taste ’em. Odds are, they’ll need to be leached. High concentrations of tannin can cause G.I. upset, kidney damage and cirrhosis of the liver, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
There are many ways to leach out tannin, some more practical than others. The natives would often put their shelled nuts in a basket and let a swift-flowing river take care of the job for a couple of days. To me, this seems the most logical, but clean, swift-flowing rivers are hard to find for most people. Others suggest simply allowing the acorns to soak and replacing the water when it goes brown, until the acorns are no longer bitter.
I chose the 3-hour boil method. After the first boiling of 15 minutes, the water looked like this:
Pour off the water, refill, and continue.
After about 12 boilings, the water started to look not quite so muddy, so at that point I was done. The acorns tasted at this point like an artichoke heart, nutty with a sweet aftertaste.
Next, dry the acorns in a 200° oven for an hour. In they go:
And out they come.
At this point they’re no longer soggy, but still not totally dry. So I popped them into my food processor on pulse setting just until the acorns were crumbled, and put them back in the oven for another hour and a half.
Now what I had was dried acorn meal. Run this through my Magic Mill III:
… and the end result is about 2 cups of acorn flour, which you can use in your favorite recipe – for bread, or pancakes, or biscuits, or whatever floats your boat.
I chose a bread recipe that uses about 6½ cups of flour, resulting in a bread that was only partly acorns, but which still had a very nice flavor.
Here’s the recipe:
Scald: 1 C Milk
1 C Water
1 T Shortening or Lard
1 T Butter
2 T Sugar
1 T Salt
In a separate bowl, combine:
¼ C 105°-115° (F) Water
1 package active dry yeast
and let dissolve 3-5 minutes. Add the lukewarm milk mixture to the dissolved yeast.
6½ C Flour (white flour and acorn flour to taste)
Stir in 3 cups flour (use the acorn flour first), then work in remaining flour by kneading on a floured surface until smooth and elastic.
Place dough in greased bowl and cover, allow to rise in a warm place until double, at least 1 hour. Punch down, and if time permits, allow to double again. Turn out, divide into 2 loaves and let rest 5 minutes. Place in pans and again allow to rise until almost double in bulk.
Preheat oven to 450°. Bake loaves 10 minutes – reduce heat to 350° and bake 30 minutes longer. Test for doneness by turning out a loaf and thumping the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it’s done. If not, put it back in for a few more minutes. Remove loaves from pans at once and allow to cool on rack before storing.
Now, if I were to go about this again, I would do the following things differently:
- Find bigger acorns. Scrub oak tasted fine, but the shelling took forever.
- Use a pecan sheller, as mentioned in the note below.
- Gather more acorns to start with, so I could get a decent amount of flour, some to use, and some to keep.
- Use a different leaching method, probably just letting the nuts sit in cold water and changing it every now and then. It might take longer, but I think the nuts would retain more of their nutrition.
- Use less acorn flour. It’s heavier than wheat flour, and has no gluten, so it can’t be used alone – there’s nothing to bind the bread.
Besides the bread, a lot of benefits accrued to me during this exercise. The entire time that I was harvesting, shelling, leaching, grinding and making bread, I turned my mind to the original occupants of this continent. This was a labor-intensive process. If you were going to use acorns as a major food source for a community, you’d pretty much have to put the entire female population to work on the process. Given that 3 lbs of acorns resulted in about 8 ounces of flour, you’d need a lot of acorns, and a lot of hands to do the necessary work. Granted, these folks spent a good part of their day working on food production anyway, but it left me with a huge sense of respect for what was necessary.
The exercise also made me think about the history of our nation in general, with no small amount of sadness. A few weeks ago, prior to my Acorn Escapade, I re-watched “Dances with Wolves.” I recalled the Gary Larson cartoon on the subject:
So I hopped over to Rotten Tomatoes.com to see if there was really anyone who didn’t like the film. To my surprise, it only got a 78% positive rating. One review, which was pretty representative of the opposition, said: “The political correctness is so politically correct and sappy and sucky and conscience-appeasing and politically-pacifying and just generally brain-numbing…”. Well, all I can say is that after 400 years of being raped by the white man, the autochthones of this continent are entitled to a little political correctness. The attitude of our nation toward the native has been and continues to be, “Bohica!” . Don’t believe me? Just take a drive through the four corners area and down into the Res, and you’ll see the results of the white man’s benevolence. And, I haven’t the slightest idea of how to go about making it right.
These thoughts brought to you by the humble Acorn.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
1Acorns are soft-shell nuts. I recommend using a pecan sheller rather than a regular nutcracker.
These are available online at any number of places.
2 “Bend over, here it comes again”