I know this probably should have been the first of the three acorn posts I’ve written over the past few weeks, but before I got into the mechanics of working with acorns and acorn flour I wanted to whet your appetite for actually using them — not as some grim survival food or something old hippies eat, but as a worthy ingredient in serious, modern cooking.
If you haven’t read my other two acorn posts, Acorns and the Forager’s Dilemma is an introduction to the use of acorns; the Forager’s Dilemma is, in a word, starch. Starch (carbohydrates) is the toughest thing to forage for, and is a primary reason why humans settled down 10,000 years ago to grow grain.
Next I wrote about an interesting Acorn Honey Cake I’d made and how various world cultures have traditionally used acorns, cultures ranging from Korea to Japan to the Native Americans, Europeans and North Africans.
Using acorns as food pretty much falls into three categories: Eating acorns as nuts (they are a lot like chestnuts), making acorn flour, or cooking in acorn oil. I have not yet tried to make acorn oil, but I know how to do it and plan on trying it when I am a bit more mobile.
First you need to get yourself a supply of acorns. Go find some oak trees; they’re the ones with all the acorns that have fallen down around them. I know this sounds condescending and stupid, but oaks come in so many varieties that in January this really is the easiest way. It is a bit of a crapshoot, as it is tougher to determine a variety of oak by its acorn than by its the leaf — you can do it, but it is a little harder.
Must you gather acorns in the dead of winter? Nope. In fact, the Valley Oak acorns I am working with were gathered in October. You can collect acorns as early as August, while many are still green but fully formed; in fall when they, well, fall; in winter when there is no snow, and even in spring, when they are beginning to sprout.
Suellen Ocean, who wrote a very useful book Acorns and Eat ‘em,says she likes to collect Tanoak acorns in February and March, after many have begun sprouting. She says acorns with sprouts between 1-2 inches long are still good to eat, but discard any acorn meats that have turned green.
I plan to do this and go through a second round of acorn experiments, especially because Ocean says recently sprouted acorns a) have begun to turn their starch into sugar, and b) are foolproof: “If it is sprouted, it’s a good acorn and I haven’t wasted time gathering wormy ones.”
A word on worms. When I gathered all those Valley Oak acorns in October, little did I know that I had gathered scores already infected with the larva of the oak weevil. Nasty little maggoty things, you can tell they are inside your acorn if there is a little hole in the shell. Look for it, discard that acorn and move on. But know that oak weevil larvae bored those holes from the inside out — so many acorn experts say only choose fallen acorns that still have their “hats” on; the theory is that the extra weight of the larva makes the acorn fall prematurely.
Still, you need to know what kind of oak you are dealing with. If you don’t know your trees, start looking for little green acorns in May. Pick a leaf and compare it to oak leaves online or in a guidebook. Right now gather acorns and compare them to online images and guidebooks; different oaks bear acorns with different shapes.
With that in mind, remember that not all oaks are created equal, and the fundamental fact of cooking with acorns is that you are dealing with a wild food, and as such must contend with tremendous variability, both in species and even among individuals of the same species.
Some oaks bear acorns so low in tannins (we’ll get to tannins later) that they can be eaten raw. Legend says that California Indians fought over these trees, which makes some sense because one mature Valley Oak can drop 2,000 pounds of acorns in a really good year. A ton of sweet acorns may well be worth fighting over.
UC Riverside Professor David Bainbridge wrote in a 1986 academic paper that depending on species, acorns can range in fat content from 1.1 percent to 31.3 percent, protein from 2.3 percent to 8.6 percent, and carbohydrates from 32.7 percent to 89.7 percent. That is a huge range!
What does it mean? It means that in the kitchen you treat acorns from different species very, very differently. A fatty acorn will make a meal, like ground almonds. A carb-rich acorn — like my Valley Oak acorns — makes a drier flour, more like chestnut or chickpea flour (acorns lack gluten and so wil not rise.)
WHAT TO DO WITH VARIOUS OAKS
Here’s a general breakdown, culled from research I’ve done in literally dozens of academic papers and wild plant books:
‘Sweetest’ Acorns, meaning lowest in tannin: East Coast White oak, the Emory oak of the Southwest, the Pin oak of the South, the Valley and Blue oaks of California, the Burr oak of the Midwest, as well as the Cork oak and the well-named Bellota oak of Europe. To my California readers, know that there are an awful lot of cork oaks and burr oaks planted in towns and cities here, so keep your eyes peeled.
Largest Acorns: Valley oaks are really big, as are East Coast White oaks. Burr oaks are large, too, as is the California Black oak.
Fattiest Acorns: The Eastern red oak acorns I’ve used have a very high oil content, and I’ve read that the Algonquin Indians used red oak acorns for oil. In the West, the champions are both live oaks, the Coastal and the interior live oak, as well as the California black oak, which is quercus kellogii.
I found that shelling the acorns is the most onerous part of dealing with them. They have an elastic shell that resists normal nut crackers. I found whacking them with a hammer to be the best way to open up an acorn. Some people use a knife, and I might do this with green acorns, but not fully ripe ones. Best way to whack ‘em is to put the flat end (the side that used to have the cap) on a firm surface and rap the pointy end with a hammer.
Red oak acorns will have a skin that doesn’t want to come off, just like a chestnut. If you boil the acorns and shell them while still hot, the skin comes right off. Only do 5-10 acorns at a time if you are doing this, or they’ll cool too much. I only bother with this when I am making acorn bits, not flour. The skin is a little bitter, but it’s not that big a deal if you are making flour.
Always shell your acorns into water. The meats oxidize fast, and you will get a lighter flour if you do this. It’s aesthetic, but it matters to me.
With a few exceptions, such as the Emory oak of Arizona and New Mexico, all acorns must be leached with water to remove bitter tannins, which will a) make your mouth feel and taste like felt, b) make you a bit nauseous, and possibly c) constipate you for days.
Getting those tannins out is the big barrier to cooking with acorns. But it ain’t no biggie. With my Valley oak acorns, after shelling I dropped the acorn meats directly into my stockpot that was two-thirds full of water. When I filled the pot about a third of the way up with shelled acorns, I brought the pot of water to a boil. The water turns dark. As soon as it boils, pour the water off into the sink and repeat the process.
It required five changes of water to get my Valley oak acorns to where they tasted like chestnuts. I did this all while watching football, and did not miss a snap. It takes time, but not much effort.
Other oaks will require more or fewer changes of water. Choose the “sweetest” acorns on my list above for the least amount of work.
Are there other methods of leaching? You bet, including outlandish ones like grinding the raw acorns into flour and hanging them in a sack set in the flush tank of your toilet — whenever you flush, it leaches more tannin out.
One other good method is to grind the raw acorns into flour, then mix 1 cup of acorn flour to 3 cups water. Pour this all into a glass jar with a lid and put it in the fridge. Every day you shake the jar, wait 12 hours or more, then pour off the water — and the tannins. How long? Anywhere from a week to two weeks, depending on how bitter your acorns are. This is a good way to leach acorns without using fuel for boiling water, and you do not denature a particular starch in the acorns that acts a little like the gluten in flour, i.e., it helps the flour stick to itself.
If you plan on baking with the acorn flour, use the cold-water leaching method.
Once your acorns are free of tannins, you need to figure out what to do with them. Regardless, you need to dry them first or they will rot. Big pieces can be patted dry on a tea towel.
If it is hot out, lay the acorns out on cookie sheets and dry in the sun. You could also put them in an oven set on “warm.”
You can also put the acorns in a dehydrator set on low heat.
I prefer to roast my hot-leached acorns, as roasting brings out the sugars in acorns and really protects them from deteriorating. I roasted my acorns at 300 degrees for about an hour. Keep in mind these were Valley oaks, so watch your acorns after about 30 minutes — some may roast faster than others, and you do not want to burn them.
FLOUR or PIECES
If you want big pieces, vacuum seal them and put them in the freezer. Use pieces in a wild game soup like the ruffed grouse soup I made with acorn bits last week, or you can make them into an interesting breakfast if you cook them with cream and honey.
Pieces are also good as nut substitutes, chopped into meatballs and as part of a turkey stuffing, for example. You might use chopped acorn pieces with my venison meatball recipe – after all, deer eat acorns.
As good as pieces are, I prefer my acorns as flour. Here’s how to make it.
- Start with the cold-leaching method, where you pulverize the fresh acorns and put them into a jar to leach. Once the tannins are all gone, pour the acorn meal into a a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Steadily squeeze as much water as you can out of the meal.
- Lay the squeezed acorn meal on a baking sheet in a thin layer and dry it either in a dehydrator or in an oven set as low as it will go; I set mine at 170 degrees. Slowly dry the flour, mixing it from time to time — the top layer will dry before the bottom.
- Once the meal is fully dry — do not skimp on this step or you will ruin your flour — put it into a blender fixed with a dry blade (I use a Vitamix) or a strong coffee grinder to grind the meal into a flour. Do this in batches, and allow time to let your grinder cool between batches. I’ve found that about 60-90 seconds works pretty well.
- Sift the flour through your finest-mesh sieve to remove any stray large pieces.
Store the flour in jars in the fridge. Why the fridge? What fat there is in acorns will go rancid pretty quick if you left the flour at room temperature.
What you can now do with this flour is pretty limitless. My first success was an acorn flour flatbread in the style of an Italian piadina, which is essentially a tortilla. I then made acorn flour honey cake, which was really very tasty — almost like gingerbread cake — but I still need to work on the texture.
Then I decided to make acorn flour pasta. I played around with the proportions of acorn flour to wheat — I used both semolina and regular all-purpose flour, but no eggs. When I finally got it right, or at least where I wanted it, I decided that the nutty, dark, unrefined taste of this pasta needed a shape equally rustic. I immediately thought orecchiette, but was having a little trouble making them, so I switched midstream to making cavatelli.
You make this shape — or at least I made this shape, as cavatelli has many permutations — by rolling out the pasta dough into a snake about the width of your fattest finger. Then with a small knife you slice off a disc about the size of your thumbnail. With the knife you drag the dough towards you and it will roll around on itself.
The effect is a very basic, very rustic gnocchino, or little dumpling. The edges remain thick and chewy, but the action of dragging the dough over the wooden board gives it texture both by contact with the wood and by stretching out the gluten in the wheat flour. The center section of the cavatello gets thin in the process, giving you a variety of sensations when you eat them.
Aren’t they cool? I think so, and it is something I can do sitting down while my torn Achilles tendon heals, too. What to serve them with? Well, I have been on a “foods of the forest” kick ever since I shot those grouse in Minnesota, so I figured a real powerful mushroom ragu would do the trick.
I recently bought some dried wild mushrooms from an outfit called Earthy Delights, and I added to them some of my own dried wild mushrooms for a real melange: black trumpets, morels, yellowfoot chanterelles, porcini, matsutake and maitake. (Click for the full mushroom ragu recipe.)
A perfect match, especially with a little homemade bacon in the ragu. OK, I put a lot of homemade bacon in it. The sauce was even better the second day we had it, and it definitely benefits from an earthier pasta; we ate it with regular spaghetti and it was not as good.
I still had enough leftover pasta dough to make another dish, and this is where that Asian-inspired soup I was mentioning above comes in. I decided to go with Asian simplicity and Italian flair. Maybe it’s weird, but hey. Deer eat acorns, right? And I had some rich venison broth in the freezer.
I really like Japanese buckwheat noodles, so I figured I’d make acorn flour vermicelli with the leftover pasta. It would be a lot like those soba noodles, I reckoned, and the Koreans actually do eat acorn flour noodles that look like this. When I made them, however, I realized the dough I’d made that was perfect for cavatelli — a little wet and loose — made making vermicelli difficult. I needed to add quite a lot of extra semolina to keep everything from sticking together.
The result rocked. Long-simmered, lovingly made venison broth bathing freshly made acorn flour noodles. We ate it with chopsticks and wished we had more. Holly thought that of all the acorn dishes I’ve been making of late, this was the one that was the most balanced, the one that most brought out the acorn flavor without other ingredients shouting it down.
Maybe so, but I am really happy with that mushroom ragu. I will say this, however: The combination of venison broth and acorn flour pasta was the most restrained and elegant acorn dish I’ve yet made.
Phew! This has been a lot of time and space spent talking about acorns. I hope I have given at least a few of you the inspiration to look at these ubiquitous nuts in a new way, as well as a few recipes for them once you’ve gone and collected your own. Acorns are all around us. We need just pick them up.
ACORN or CHESTNUT FLOUR PASTA DOUGH
This is a pasta sometimes made in Puglia, according to the excellent book Encyclopedia of Pasta. This is a rough, rustic pasta that cries out to be served with game. Ideally, wild boar, venison, wood duck or mallard – something that actually eats acorns. Do not expect to make super-refined pasta here, unless you have the ability to grind the acorns that fine.
A simple tagliatelle or pappardelle is perfect here, as is spaghetti if you have the die to make it. Hand-formed pasta, like orecchiette would also be good. Could you use acorn flour pasta for a ravioli? Yes, but it might be tough to roll it out thin enough. Decrease the amount of acorn flour and replace it with regular wheat flour if you do this.
Oh, and if you want a similar effect with a store-bought flour, use chestnut flour. You can buy it at good Italian grocery stores or from my friend Scott at Sausage Debauchery, who sells chestnut flour online.
Note that in the cook time below, most of that time is how long it takes for water to boil. The pasta itself should only need about 2-3 minutes to cook.
Makes enough to serve 6.
Prep Time: 90 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup semolina flour
- 1/2 cup acorn flour or chestnut flour
- 1 ½ cups cool water
- Pinch of salt
- Mix the flours and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center.
- Pour the water into the well and combine it by swirling your fingers around. When the dough becomes a shaggy mass, bring it together with your hands, then knead on a floured counter for 5-8 minutes.
- Lightly coat the dough in olive oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let it sit out for at least an hour, but this dough will keep in the fridge for a day. Acorn flour and semolina need a little longer to hydrate because they are coarser.
- Roll out depending on how you want to make the pasta. Tagliatelle would be the next-to-last setting on your pasta maker and about ¼ inch wide.
- Dust them in all-purpose flour as you lay the tagliatelle down on a floured board or counter. Allow to dry while you make the rest. After each portion of the dough is rolled out, gently pick up the center of the tagliatelle from the previous portion and twirl into a loose pile. Set aside.
- This pasta is not good frozen, but it will hold in the fridge for a few days. It gets terribly brittle the longer it dries out.