Processing Wild Acorns as Food
By gaining some familiarity with oak trees, you will know what kind of nuts are available and whether or not to gather then every year or two years.
Gathering and processing acorns can give you a nutritious source of food from the wild.
Another nutritious wild food in the form of nuts for the First Nation was the acorn. All acorns are candidates for food. Europeans were introduced to acorns when they came to the land of the First Nations, now called north America. Competition for acorns comes mainly from ducks, birds, squirrels, chipmunks and other rodents in urban areas. In the wild, competition includes a wide variety of birds, deer, elk, mountain sheep and bears. Among the First Nations, these were collected by the women, who then shelled and soaked them to remove the tannin, dried, ground them to a powder and then incorporated them into meals with other ingredients. Various native tribes used a wide variety of methods to sweeten the nuts. Some would bury them in swamp mud for a year and then retrieve them later for eating right out of the shell, as the mud drew out the tannin. Others would heap them in baskets and let mould sweeten them. At least one nation discovered that the resulting mould helped in treating cuts and scrapes, preventing infection. If corn was available, the corn was also ground and the two were made into a flat unleavened bread that could be stored and eaten when needed. Sometimes, dried wild berries were added to the mix. Of animal fat was added, the whole mix became known as pemican and was a compact and nutritionally dense food. Voyagers and traders on canoe routes would take some of this “bannock” and or pemican as it was called and eat it when needed. Of all the 500 First Nations peoples, the Californian natives relied on acorns as their main staple just as others use rice and potatoes. They either made a soup or an acorn mash. Japanese people also ate acorns and constructed ponds to soak them for several days to remove the tannin.
Acorns come in variations of a truncated ovoid with a point on one end and a scaly cap on the other. The caps or cupules easily breaks off and often does when the ripe nuts fall. The exterior of the shell is smooth, leathery and is either green or brown. They are easily shelled by cracking and splitting the leathery shell; much more so than anything else with the exception of the peanut. On the tree, they are often seen in clusters of two or more, but are hard to spot when green and still in the tree. The range in size from a half inch to two and a half inches long and a third to slightly less than two inches across. In Europe, pigs are turned loose to fatten themselves on acorns in oak groves in the fall. The idea is that the nuts don't need processing for the pigs to eat and the pigs are later slaughtered when acorn fattened.
Acorns come from the oak tree of which there are some 85 types. They grow over much of the US and southern Canada. The 85 plus types are divided into two main groups; the white and the red. The white oak is preferred for the sweet nuts that mature in a single season in shells that are smooth inside as well as outside. White oak leaves are not tipped with bristles, but are lobed and rounded with a broad large leaf surface. The bark is grey and scaly. Acorns will begin to fall in September and the season is short, so rapid collection is needed, especially when the squirrels are “going nuts”. Ground and roasted white oak acorns made a good coffee substitute and was used by the pioneers for just such a purpose. Though they taste like coffee, they lack caffeine, so you can drink till your hearts content and not get the coffee jitters. White oak acorns are much lower in tannin and thus more desirable. The white oak tree is broader than tall and a single large tree in the open can shade a lot of ground.
Wild edible food is where you find it if you know where and what.
The red oak types are not so sweet and takes the acorns two seasons to mature. So it you live in an area where red oak predominates, you may find very few nuts one year and a bumper crop in the following summer-fall. The inner shell is coated with a wooly hair, but the outsides are smooth. Even though these ones are more bitter, competition is still stiff, especially if there are no alternatives. As the nuts are bitter and need some processing to remove the tannin. The lobed and pointed leaves of the red oaks have bristles. The leaves tend to also be not a broad as the white counterparts.
To use acorns at their best, you need to remove the tannin, which interferes with metabolism and nutrient absorption in human beings. Otherwise, acorns are a good source of nutrition and protein. Some animals like pigs can eat them with tannin, but human beings need to avoid ingesting tannin. To prepare your gathered acorns if they are the bitter, tannin filled type, shell them and then boil them in water until the water yellows. Discard the yellowed water and add fresh boiling water. After a few rounds, the nuts should be sweet. This should take about two hours, so it would be good to process them in large batches. The nuts can then be slow dried in a low heat oven or sun dried if you want them for later, or they can be mashed and used straight away. They can be eaten whole or ground to a flour to add to other dishes as a sprinkle or as an ingredient. The limits are only in the imagination of the cook. To that end, a Korean cook can give you ideas as they like the nuts in cooking and form one of the main cultures outside of some First Nations people that eat them in a variety of ways. Koreans to this day make noodles that are made from acorns.
As a long term food, acorns store well provided they are kept dry. In the flour form, you have to store it carefully as it gets mouldy easily due to a high fat content. Thus, it is best to store them whole until needed. It is better to leave the shell on until needed. When needed, they will readily absorb moisture, especially in the tannin removal stage. As the red oak only produces them once every two years, when they fall, you should consider gathering what you will use over a two year period until the next harvest. If you live in a white oak region, this is not a concern as the nuts mature in a single season. Gathering acorns for food is a rewarding experience and the fact that many are wild, increases their nutritional value.
Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by Bradford Angier. Stackpile Books ISBN 0-8117-0616-8
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