Reconsider the acorn for a moment. The “oak nut” falls to the ground by the thousands, in nearly every state in the nation, and in scores of shapes and sizes. You probably walked past several today. Acorns are all around us, yet rare are the people who can say they’ve ever eaten them. Eating acorns is even uncommon among dedicated foragers.
Oh I know what you’re thinking: They’re poisonous. Intolerably bitter. Flavorless. Too much work to shell. Too much work to process. Not worth the effort. Mealy.
None of this is really true, unless pre-packaged meals are your idea of a grand dinner. And if you’re that lazy you are in the wrong corner of the Internet and should probably leave. Making acorns good to eat is far easier than many other cooking tasks we do cheerfully on a weekend, and takes far less time than you might think.
I processed more than 10 pounds of acorns one morning while watching college football. Without missing a play, I had them ready to eat by the end of the game. I could have processed twice that amount in about the same time. Suffice to say that anyone who has ever made homemade pasta, butchered a deer, filleted a fish, braised beef short ribs, baked and decorated a layer cake or planted a garden bed can process acorns.
Why more people don’t eat acorns is no mystery: It is a plot perpetrated on us humans by a vast squirrel conspiracy, aided and abetted by blue jays and their magpie collaborators. OK, maybe not. But we can learn something by watching squirrels.
Squirrels don’t bury every acorn they find, you know. Scientists observing squirrel behavior back East noticed something unusual. The fuzzy varmints would seek out white oak acorns and gorge themselves on them, then dash off to find the acorns of other oaks, mainly the red oak. Powered by a meal of white oak acorns, the squirrels would then spend hours burying red oak acorns in the ground. Why?
Turns out white oak acorns are extremely low in the bitter tannins that give all acorns such a bad name. Red oak acorns are high in tannins. But tannins are water soluble. So by burying them, the squirrel hid the acorn from the stealing blue jays (and rival squirrels) and plunked it into water-rich soil. After rains and snow and freezing and thawing, the tannins leach into the soil and leave the red oak acorn as sweet as a white one.
This brilliant feat performed by what is essentially a bushy-tailed rat is the best way of showing you that there are acorns and then there are acorns: Some really are so bitter they’re not worth working with. But others, like the Eastern white oak, the bellota oaks of Europe and the Emory oak of the Southwest, are sweet enough to need minimal or no processing.
Knowing this goes a long way toward solving the Forager’s Dilemma. What is this dilemma? Think for a second: If you are a skilled hunter-gatherer, finding meat and fish is not terribly difficult. And wild greens, berries and other yummy plants are pretty easy to find, too. Where things get tricky is that third leg of the nutritional stool: Starch. For the most part, finding a sufficient supply of the Staff of Life is no easy task.
If you live in the Northwoods of Minnesota, Wisconsin and such, you are blessed with wild rice. Farther south lives the Jerusalem artichoke, a big tuber that grows underneath a little sunflower. Swampy places have arrowhead (a/k/a wapato), cattail and tule tubers. There are prairie potatoes in the Great Plains. Overlaying all of this are the oaks and their acorns.
Unless you are near a swamp, there is no easier way to collect sufficient starch for a whole year than to collect and process acorns. This is why many Indian groups did, especially here in California. Now mind you, I am not about to give up wheat or potatoes or rice for a diet of acorns. But as an ingredient, as a piece of a larger diet, acorns deserve a place in serious, modern cooking.
The easiest way to wrap your mind around this is to imagine acorns as free chestnuts — chestnuts that happen to need some processing before you eat them.
Any chestnut recipe can become an acorn recipe, and in fact acorns have been used this way in Europe and North Africa for millennia. They are still eaten with some frequency in Korea. While not easy to find, you can suss out a few acorn recipes among the Berbers, Spanish, Italians and French. Farther north, the Germans drink an acorn coffee.
This is what I started with once I had my acorns. Back in October I’d gathered a big sack full with my friend Elise at a park near my house. I’d left them lying around for a while, and when I got around to shelling them found out that many acorns harbor a nasty little maggoty thing that is the larva of the oak weevil. I got rid of all the infected acorns and shelled them with a hammer.
That’s actually the hardest part about dealing with acorns: They don’t come out of their shells too easily. Once out, they needed to be boiled to rid them of tannins. We’d gathered California valley oak acorns, which are relatively low in tannins, so I needed only five changes of water before they tasted good. Believe me, that’s not bad in the acorn world.
Once processed, I knew I was not going to cook with the acorns right away, so I roasted them in a 325 degree oven until they turned chocolate brown. I guessed (correctly as it happened) this would stabilize the acorns for storage, so I cooled them and shoved them in the fridge for a month or so.
Last week I finally ground most of them into flour, and tried this acorn coffee I’d read about. I put 2 tablespoons in a press pot and poured boiling water over it. I let the mixture steep for few minutes and poured it off.
I immediately noticed it was not black like the chicory coffee I’d made earlier this year. In fact, it looked like it already had a little cream in it. I put some sugar into the cup and tasted it…
…And I’ll be damned if it did not taste uncannily like tea with cream in it — only there was no cream. Go figure. Did I like it? Sure, it was fine. But I’m a coffee drinker, not a tea drinker. The chicory coffee suits me better.
My next experiment was to make an acorn flour flatbread. Initially I intended to make something like the Ligurian flatbread farinata, which is made with chickpea flour. So I hydrated some acorn flour in water, added some salt and let it sit overnight. Next day I got a griddle hot and poured out the crepe-like batter into it, then plunked it into a 400 degree oven.
Big epic fail. The crepe never came together, and essentially became cooked acorn meal at the bottom of the griddle. To add insult to injury, I had oversalted the stuff. Not happy.
Round 2 would stay in Italy, but the model would be a piadina, which is essentially an Italian flour tortilla. I had about 1/2 cup of the hydrated acorn flour remaining, so to that I added 1 1/2 cups of regular wheat flour and some olive oil. I kneaded the dough for a while, let it rest and tried it on a tortilla pan greased with olive oil.
Success! These not only look good, but taste wonderful, too. The acorn flour adds a lot here: It darkens the bread, makes it taste richer and yes nuttier, and I suspect the sugars in the acorn help the browning.
All in all, I’d definitely make this again. It was quick and easy once I had the flour on hand, and was wonderful eaten simply with parsley and some feta cheese. Click for the full acorn flatbread recipe.
This is only the beginning of my acorn experiment. I have a slew of acorn recipes queued up that I think work pretty well. I’ve done a fair bit of research into how other cultures use acorns, and also want to get into the nitty gritty of how to collect and process acorns.
So stay tuned.