My mother told me never to eat the acorns. They were poisonous, she said. It took me 25 years, and avoiding a lot of acorns, before I learned that she was wrong.
Acorns are edible. Many native Americans depended upon them for food. They do not always taste good to the experimenting palate because of their high tannin concentration. But once you know which acorns to ferret out and how to remove the bitter tannin, you can begin to look upon acorns as an interesting -- if not staple -- source of food for fall and winter.
Oak trees are divided by botanists into two groups: the white and the red. White oak leaves feature rounded lobes, as in the white oak, the chestnut oak or the burr oak. In contrast, red oaks have pointed leaves. The nuts produced by the white oak group contain much less tannin than the red variety, so they are the acorns to seek out when gathering your autumn supply. Occasionally, in fact, you sometimes find a white oak growing acorns so sweet, so low in tannin, that you can actually nibble like a squirrel on the acorn. The unprocessed nut tastes a little like a raw chestnut.
But if the acorn tastes of tannin -- with a bitter, puckery taste -- you can still gather the nuts and leach out the tannin using a simple process.
Gather choice white oak acorns as soon after they fall as possible. Moisture, mold, worms or wild animals may spoil the crop if you don't. A quart of acorns will provide plenty for experimentation.
Once home, remove the caps and outer husks. Sometimes briefly roasting the nuts -- say, 15 minutes in a 300-degree oven -- will help to separate the shell from the meat. Roasting them also dries out the nutmeats, keeping them from sprouting or molding in your kitchen and making them easier to store if you'd rather not cook with them the same day as gathering.
To extract excess tannin, bring a pot of water to a boil and drop the nutmeats into it. You may want to tie them first in a cheesecloth bag for ease of handling. As the nutmeats are dropped in, the water will instantly turn a red-brown color. That is the tannin, a constituent of many plants, including black tea leaves, and the same natural substance traditionally used for tanning leather. Your acorns' tannin content will depend not only on what variety of oak you found, but it also will vary from tree to tree or according to the season.
As the acorns are allowed to boil, more tannin seeps out. Leave them in the boiling water for about 10 minutes, then dump out the stained water, refill the pot and repeat the process. Continue boiling the acorns, changing the water occasionally, until the water remains quite light in color.
You can give the nuts a taste test, too. The unleached nuts produce a pucker, but thoroughly leached acorns should sit easily on the tongue, tasting sweet and nutty.
From a quart of harvested nuts, you now have about two cups of usable acorn meats. Many recipes call for the acorns to be ground and spread upon a cookie sheet and gently roasted (an hour at 300 degrees). The resulting rich, dry meal can be stored in airtight jars for the winter.
But if you're just curious, and you want to use those acorns now, you can grind, chop, mash or process the still-moist nutmeats in a blender and use them in unusual baked goods.
These chocolatey-brown acorn meats will impart their rich color to whatever you bake with them. Acorns are no doubt excellent sources of protein, as well as being high in carbohydrates, but it's impossible to find detailed nutritional data on nuts that have been neglected over the years.
You may not choose to add the nut-brown taste of acorns to your everyday menu. But you still can have the pleasure of discovering firsthand that, far from what mothers told us, acorns are edible as they present nutritious, tasty and useful additions to natural baking. ACORN BREAD (Makes 2 loaves) 1/4 cup milk 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup molasses 2 tablespoons honey 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon dry yeast 1 1/4 cups warm water 4 to 5 cups unbleached white flour 1 cup acorn meal 1/2 cup bran 1/2 cup wheat germ
Scald milk in a saucepan, then add the butter, molasses, honey and salt. Allow to cool slightly. Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup warm water thoroughly before combining with the rest of water and scalded milk concoction in a large bowl. Add 2 cups unbleached flour and beat 100 times. Add acorn meal, bran and wheat germ, and beat another 100 times. Add remaining flour 1 cup at a time, beating repeatedly to achieve proper dough consistency.
Put dough in buttered bowl, and butter top of dough as well. Let rise in a warm place to double its size, then punch down. Allow the dough to double again, then punch down. Cut into 2 parts and shape into loaves as desired. Let the loaves sit 15 minutes, then bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes. Immediately upon removing from oven, top with melted butter. Cool completely before cutting. ACORN MUFFINS (Makes 12) 1 1/2 cups flour 1 teaspoon salt 3 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 cup melted butter 2 eggs 1/2 cup honey 1/2 cup buttermilk 1 1/2 cups acorn meal (substitute flour if not enough acorn meal)
Mix together dry ingredients. Beat together wet ingredients, including acorn meal. Fold the wet mixture briskly into the dry and stir until just combined. Do not overmix. Bake in greased muffin tins at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. ACORN CHIP COOKIES (Makes about 30 cookies) 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup molasses 1/4 cup sugar (optional) 1/4 cup yogurt 1/4 cup cream cheese 1 cup acorns, finely chopped 1 cup unbleached white flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt
Blend together butter, molasses (and sugar if you choose), yogurt and cream cheese until smooth. Thoroughly stir in the chopped acorns, flour, baking powder and salt. Roll dough into a ball and pinch off small balls the size of quarters. Flatten on greased cookie sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes at 375 degrees.