For people and wildlife, the oak provides
by Christine Conley
I was married one year ago. To my surprise, tucked unassumingly amongst the gifts and cards was a beautiful quart-sized mason jar filled with prepared, dried acorns. Now this was a gift of love—and here’s why:
They take time. Acorns are plentiful on the Island. It is the nut from our most abundant tree, the oak. Eaten raw, many will be bitter and unappealing, but with careful attention to harvesting and preparation, the ground-up nuts can be made into a flour that will add an appetizing, nutty flavor to any recipe requiring flour: for example, pancakes, muffins, or breads. They’re free, they’re local, and they’re seasonal.
The first step in securing a good supply of acorns is to identify a healthy stand of mature oak trees. On the Island, this should not be hard. Just look up. However, in the realm of the edible acorn, not all oaks are created equal. Oaks generally fall into two categories; the “hard” oaks and the “soft” oaks. As esteemed naturalist and wild edible expert Russ Cohen explains, “hard” oaks include such species as the Scarlet Oak, Scrub Oak, Red Oak and Black Oak. These species generally have leaves with pointed loves and acorns with a higher concentration of tannic aid. “Soft” species, like White Oak and Chestnut Oak, have rounded lobes and nuts with less tannic acid, which in some cases, are sweet enough to require very little processing. On the Island, we have many of these species, with the dominant species being the “hard” Scrub Oak. Since the best way to harvest acorns is simply to pick them up off the ground once they’ve fallen from the tree, it can sometimes be hard to identify which species of acorn you have, and therefor the bitterness that can be expected from the nut. To make the determination, simply crack the nut and taste a little of the nutmeat. If it is excessively bitter, then chances are that you’ve found yourself a “hard” oak species. These are also edible, but require a little more processing.
There are many techniques for processing acorns, but the most common one used today is to boil the shelled nut-meats in successive changes of water. Boiling leaches the nuts’ tannic acid, so as each batch of boiling water tinges red, change the water out. The method I’ve found to work best is to have two pots going at the same time, so as not to interrupt the boiling process when a change is required. Once the water boils relatively clear, you’re done with this step of the process.
Drying is next. You can accomplish this by laying the nuts out flat and drying them in the sun for one or two full sunny days; by putting them into a low oven for up to eight hours; or (my favorite) by using a food dehydrator. It’s important that the nuts be completely dried once stored, or else you run the risk of the moisture causing a mold that will ruin the harvest. Once thoroughly dry, they can be ground into flour using a food processor and used right away, or stored in your freezer for longer keeping.
Acorns are high in carbohydrates and fats, and contain healthy amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals, making them a valued nutritional source for wildlife and human alike. But the acorn has more than just nutritional value. Survival expert Tom Brown suggests saving the first change of water in the boiling process as a potent astringent skin wash. The tea, or brew, is great for externally treating such ailments as poison ivy, boils, bee stings, pimples, and other skin irritations.
This fall, as you’re taking a stroll, walking your dog, or collecting the last bit of harvest from your backyard garden, perhaps you’ll discover a cache of acorns on the ground. What will you do with them?