Everyone likes to talk about gardening and how it will greatly benefit not only your food bill, but also your health with fresh food. That’s great and all, and yes I do garden, but lets face it – a garden is a lot of work. Sure there are ways to make it less work, but in a time and effort spent to food acquired ratio: the scale is heavily tipped to the work spent side. That is only one of the reasons I have been putting my efforts into learning wild edibles: A garden that grows itself, and all I need do is harvest. I like to think of wild edibles as a free, organic, minimal work input food source. We have a 40 acre hobby farm that is 2/3rds wooded.
Here is a list of wild foods we harvest from our land: Daylilies, violets, thistles, milkweed, wild plums, acorns, hazel nuts, wild strawberries, bramble berries, dock, nettle, sun chokes, wild grapes, mint, chickweed, lambs quarters, maple (syrup), pine, elderberries, burdock, clovers, pineapple weed, dandelions (candy lions as my kids call them!), mushrooms: artist conchs, hen of the woods, and crown tip coral. These are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head, I’m sure there are plenty more waiting for us to discover. If we had to be quarantined to our property, I think we would do alright.
A food source that we have been utilizing and thoroughly enjoying is acorns. Acorns offer the great advantage of being easily identified and, often, abundant. We make acorn pancakes, and love them. Here is some of what we have learned and some of the “how to” with regards to acorns. First is the collecting of the acorns. We tried a number of methods for collecting… I enjoy simply sitting on the ground and picking up all the ones within reach and plopping them in the bucket. Once I’ve gotten all I can easily reach, I move over a few feet and begin anew. If the kids are helping we make a game of it and race to see who can fill their ice cream bucket first. My husband, who has an obsession with anything mechanical, got out the shop vac and let the kids race around sucking up acorns! That works well but it picks up everything else too. It then requires the employment of a fan blowing and you pouring the bucket of acorns and debris in front of the fan, (thus blowing away all the extras) and having another bucket under the fan to catch all the acorns. Make sure the bottom bucket is tall as the acorns will attempt to hop out. We also had a friend of a friend come over with a Baganut nut picker that picked up 25 gallons of acorns in 45 minutes! It probably would go much faster had the yard not been full of leaves that kept interfering. He uses his machine to collect the acorns to feed/bait deer. It is an amazing machine, but out of our price range. We did some searching on the web and found some much cheaper tools that are like wire cages that you roll on the ground and they pick up the acorns (www.nutpicker.com). This would be a good option for older folks or those who simply have a harder time getting up and down (from seated hand picking). Just do an Internet search for nut picker and you will find many options.
What type of acorns should you get? Any kind will work. We use red oak acorns because that is what is growing in our yard. White is supposed to be less bitter – but we find the red to be quite yummy. When selecting acorns – just do a quick glance at them as you pick them up. You are looking for ones that do not have any holes (which indicates that the worms have left), cracks (dirt can get in), or with the acorn “cap” firmly attached (the tree rejected it because it knew the nut was bad). Crack a few good and obvious bad ones, your going to crack them all open anyhow. Get used to feeling the weight of them. You will soon learn to tell the good from the bad.
Next comes the cracking. My husband built an acorn cracker for us that employees a 1 horsepower motor and 2 rotating circles with knobs on them that crack the acorns for us. But a low tech, sure way of cracking acorns involves an old towel laid down, put acorns on top of the towel, then fold the towel on top of the acorns. Hand a hammer to your 7 and 8 year olds and in no time at all you will have all the acorns cracked. If you choose to not use an old towel or blanket to sandwich the acorns in, you will spend time chasing them all over the floor. And bits of cracked acorn shells hurt on bare feet. The next step involves extracting the nut meat. Use the nut picks that everyone has for holiday nuts. These can be picked up very cheaply at thrift stores and garage sales. And you might as well get a bunch. How many people will be at you retreat? Get one for everyone. Picking out the meats takes time, but it’s a fun opportunity to work together, and even children can participate.
Now for the processing. This is where I differ from what many others recommend. Most sources will tell you to boil the nut meats in several changes of water, for several hours. I suppose you could do that, if you want to tend a fire and use all of those resources (effort in gathering and tending a fire), and time, that it takes. I should mention that for those who recommend boiling the acorns for a long time are using the acorns for a different purpose than I use them for. They are boiling the large pieces of nut meat and then adding them to stews and such, whereas my goal is flour. So, yes, our processes our different. Here’s what I do: Once the meat has been sorted (shells removed), put 1 cup of nut meat in a blender with 3 to 4 cups of water. Attach lid (do I really need to mention this step?). Turn on high for 1-2 minutes or until the contents have reached a slurry consistency. You are “grinding” the nut meat into flour with this step, so make sure the meats are finely ground. Next, take out a colander and line it with a cloth. No, not cheese cloth, the slurry would run right through it! A bandana works decently, I use an old shirt with a weave that is slightly thicker than pantyhose. Once the colander is lined, have a helper hold up the edges of the cloth, or clothespin the cloth to the top of the colander. Gently and slowly pour your slurry into the cloth. Allow the water to drain out the bottom. Over the next ten minutes keep a fairly continuous stream of water pouring into the colander. Water temp does not matter, hot/cold, it all works. This is the leaching process – the removing of the tannins (bitter part). Continue to let water percolate over the acorn mush until it passes the taste test. To test for bitterness/doneness simply dab your finger in and taste a small bit. If its still bitter, keep the water flowing over it. I find that using the water from the faucet, with fairly decent pressure, it take between 7-10 minutes to render the meat (flour) edible. Once the bitterness is removed it is ready to be used as flour. Ball up the flour inside the cloth and squeeze the cloth to remove remaining water. Unwrap the cloth and behold your acorn flour! You can immediately add it to any recipe. Or if you would like to use it latter, spread it out on a baking pan and allow it to dry. It will be clumpy (from drying) and need to be sifted or otherwise broken apart to be used as flour. Store it in the fridge.
1 cup of acorn nut meat equals just under 1 cups’ worth of flour. When you are first trying acorn flour – mix it ½ and ½ with your regular flour. Sort of “work your way” into getting used to it. It is quite yummy. It imparts a slight nutty flavor to the recipe, that our family enjoys. Acorn flour has no gluten and will not rise. You can make bread out of it. It will just be a denser, banana-bread like consistency. When we harvest our acorns, we put them into cleaned ice cream buckets and put them in the freezer until we want to use them.
For more info on wild edibles I like Wild Man Steve Brill’s book: Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. But my favorite wild food books are by Sam Thayer: The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. The latter book has a lengthy chapter on acorns stuffed with info. His web site is ForagersHarvest.com. He also has a DVD titled Foragers Harvest that goes through all the plants in the book with the same title. My kids enjoyed the movie. They recognized plants and begged to go harvest different ones that they knew the location of. Another good source of info is from Green Deane – he has lots of different YouTube videos – each featuring a different plant and how to use it. I also highly recommend going to the Wild Food Summit in northwestern Minnesota in June. It is a great event, with a good family atmosphere. There are lectures and workshops and foraging expeditions all day. The meals eaten at the event are comprised of the wild foods harvested in the classes.
This is not meant to be an “end all – be all” about acorns – but rather a glimpse at what our family has learned and experienced with the use of acorns. There are obviously other means of accomplishing the same things that we do. In a grid down situation we would allow the acorns to dry out for long term storage. We would not use a blender – but a mortar and pestle system, or other means of grinding/mashing. So have fun, and enjoy some Free, Organic, Low Effort, Delicious Food.