I kind of love the idea that these pesky little nuts, while downright dangerous under foot, are actually a survival food. After foraging sumac a few weeks ago, I was flipping through Stalking the Wild Asparagus and became captivated by the idea of turning acorns into dinner. I was probably six-years-old the last time I tried this experiment, and there was certainly no salt, butter or simmering involved. Needless to say, my past taste tests were as discouraging as they were ill-informed.
I was recently at my two-year-old nephew's backyard birthday party (dressed as Paul Bunyan, of course) when, suddenly, I was surrounded by acorns. Far too enterprising to pass up the bounty, I fetched a grocery bag from the car and started scrounging. It's amazing how expressing enthusiasm, regardless of the focus, garners the attention of curious onlookers. It wasn't long before several of these onlookers, including 95-year-old Grandma Helen, joined in the foraging fun. After a few short minutes I had more than enough acorns for my experiment...maybe even enough to survive the winter...
According to Mr. Euell Gibbons, while acorns vary in bitterness, none of them are poisonous. I found that fact encouraging and didn't spend much time worrying about which type I was collecting (I think they were from a black oak). This was just an introductory experiment, after all.
The key to making acorns palatable is removing the excess tannin by cooking--primarily boiling. Tannin is in all kinds of stuff: tea, wine, chocolate, nuts, berries. In moderation it adds some complexity to a food's flavor. Having tasted one of my acorns raw, I can assure you the cooking part is rather important.
With a few helpers, you can have your own bag of acorns in minutes.
SNL kept me entertained during this somewhat remedial task. After a few dozen, I got into the groove.
Try a bit of raw acorn--this will motivate you to do a good job with the next few steps.
Boiling the acorns leeches away the bitterness and astringency. I used a couple inches of fresh water in the pot, or about 5 cups. Don't bother measuring.
I think the smell of simmering acorns is absolutely amazing--better than any kind of supposedly fall-scented candle, I dare say.
Change the water
After simmering for a while, the water will become dark. Drain the old water from the pot and replace it with fresh stuff. Repeat this cycle three times or so.
I used my electric tea kettle to pre-boil the replacement water, which makes the process quite speedy.
Drain and test for bitterness
After three cycles of boiling (at least an hour per cycle), the acorn meat is darkened and much more palatable. I tried a few pieces at this point and thought they tasted vaguely like chestnuts.
If your acorns are still inedibly bitter, give them another go 'round with fresh water. In the end, your persistence will pay off.
From here you have a few options and I took the savory route. I put the boiled acorn meat into a food processor with clarified butter and salt. When in doubt, I find those two ingredients enhance pretty much everything.
Sweet is another option. In his book, Mr. Gibbons mentions he candied his acorns by adding sugar and slow roasting (drying) them in an oven. That doesn't sound half bad, but I don't eat sugar on account of it messing with my health.
Truth be told, my survival pâté was actually quite enjoyable. Knowing that wild food abounds--even if I choose to ignore it most of the time--gives me the warm fuzzy feeling that Mother Nature has my back.
My goal here wasn't to create some kind of wild-crafted gourmet thing. I just wanted to explore the value of something so commonly overlooked. Perhaps it is medicinal; perhaps it is just a nut to which I'm not yet allergic.
Either way, I think that wilder foods are likely to provide greater health benefits. The processes of foraging and eating them reminds us that we are living members of that vast ecosystem just outside the window we call Nature. It's also plain fun. Stay tuned for my next foraging post: Squirrels.
I'm Ethan, a guy whose life used to be controlled by ulcerative colitis. As I systematically tested diets, treatments, and all types of health advice to heal my colon, I learned a lot about my own biology and also how to cook without compromise. I'm here to share the best (and sometimes worst) of that journey with you.