Acorns: A Challenge

Acorns are a rarely recognized but plentiful wild food. They are high in protein, and even more so in fats. Unfortunately, they also contain a lot of bitter tannins that make them inedible for, or at least unpalatable to, humans. Fortunately, the process to rid acorns of these tannins is pretty simple, and involves the universal solvent: water. 

Acorns were a popular winter food source for native peoples of the Americas, such as the Abenaki and the Yurok. However ancient Europeans in Iberia, Greece and Scandinavia were also grinding acorn flour and adding it to their bread. Different trees yielded acorns that were more or less palatable than others. In one description of preparation, the oak’s nuts would be gathered, shelled, rinsed in a river, and then lightly toasted before being ground into a meal. The resultant flour was an important source of calories during long, harsh Winters. Popularly distributed instructions for tannin removal are similar to this original method, and often suggest either tying nut meal into a cloth sack and allowing a river to rinse unpleasant flavors away, or boiling the nuts in several washes of water before drying, grinding and roasting.

When we arrived in Maine, I was excited to begin learning as much as possible about local wild plants, agricultural practices and fungi. It’s pretty late in the season however, and I assumed I would have to settle for learning a few mushrooms, while waiting for spring to finally come after the North East’s notoriously long winter. But! I was very lucky to make a new friend here who is very knowledgeable about wild foods and medicines, and who is always excited to share information. They were the party responsible for pointing me in the direction of acorns for late season foraging, (amongst so many other things!) and I am very excited to experiment with this food!

I know that there is an author (Pascal Baudar) living in California, who works with wild foods, and that he is making lacto-fermented nut cheeses out of acorns, (which I find incredibly interesting- not because I would ever prioritize nut cheeses over dairy cheeses, but because one of my primary criticisms of a meatless, plant based diet is the industrial and non local nature of the average vegan diet. He however manages to make do with mushrooms, acorns and a host of other plants- cranking out wild crafted sodas, lacto-fermented nut cheeses, and imitation meats from the mountains around him. Worth checking out, even if you still enjoy animal products! ) And I had heard of acorns being added to breads and porridges as starvation food, but after doing more research I think that these may be a really plentiful and gratifying wild harvested food, feast or famine. 

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Here’s where this entry differs from previous entries. While it is extremely late in the season, and some of you may already be experiencing snow, most of us are still enjoying an extended and reasonably temperate Autumn. Quick!  Join me in this experiment, and also in a challenge intended to take this project off the Internet.  

Get out there before it’s too cold or wet, and gather as many acorns as you can in an afternoon-

1.Shell them, and pick the most expedient mode of processing for your setting.  

2.Take some pictures to document  your process.

3. As soon as you’re sitting in front of a jar of useable, fully processed acorn meal (or snackable nut bits, if you don’t have the means to grind the acorns into flour), post pictures of your gathering and processing, with you in them, onto instagram and tag both @einklugespise and @wandervogel.official, and let us know what you thought of acorns as both a foraging and eating experience. Shoot me a message on IG so I know you’re done! The first person to complete the challenge will receive a small, hand embroidered patch to signify their accomplishment in the first challenge of this kind. 

I’m partially done with the process now, and am currently in the soaking stage. Here is documentation of my progress, with some rudimentary instructions. I encourage you to seak out other information and techniques from both the internet and foraging guides, and to share your thoughts on the process and ways that you find to use your acorn flour! 

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After gathering an American gas mask bag’s worth of acorns from around a local bog, I set to work taking nut meat from shell. In lieu of a proper nut-cracker, and much to my husband’s dismay, I opted for a rusty old pair of dikes left in the cabin. Acorns are a really delightfully meaty nut, and very little inside the shell is not meat. Which is encouraging when you consider the weight difference between a bag of say, walnuts and  a bag of the contents of their shells, once removed. The job is time consuming -but can be a cozy task on a cold, windy, autumn day. 

We are lucky on the property we inhabit to have both a large river and a small stream within easy access from our front door. However after carefully mulling over the better spot to tie and rinse our acorns, my husband and I came to the conclusion that both catfish and livestock jeopardized our use of either nearby water source as a reasonable soaking spot. Our solution is instead to tie the shelled nuts into a square of cheese cloth , and to change the soaking water several times a day until the nuts are no longer bitter. I agitate them in the water occasionally throughout the day, to make sure they aren’t just sitting in a pool of tannins. If I find this technique successful, I am going to try grinding the nuts up a bit first in a food processor- hopefully this will reduce soaking times. 

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 I want to veer away from the boiling method, since the fats in nuts are generally pretty prone to rancidity, as are most vegetable oils. I would also shy away from toasting for this same reason where it an option, but my current kitchen setting is pretty sparse, and it looks like toasting will be the way I finish this project. While I have a oven, I will probably opt to set a cookie sheet on or near our wood stove out of hopes that this is a gentler option for fats in the acorns. 

My final step will be to grind them into a coarse meal and use them in bread or pancakes… or maybe even added to wheat flour in dumplings! 

Keep an eye on my Instagram for more information on acorns, processing them for food, and the history of their consumption by humans. 

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