Eating the Acorns: How to Make Acorn Bread and Other Acorn Recipes
While acorns have recently attracted a great deal of interest as human food, people may still think you’re a little crazy if you go out and collect them by the bushel and post your cooking and baking adventures on Facebook.
But you will be in good company: Perhaps the earliest European to grow fond of acorns as food was naturalist John Muir, who relied on acorn cakes to sustain him during his explorations, and called them “the most compact and strength-giving food” he had ever used.
Acorns were a traditional food of many Native American tribes, and most of our knowledge about processing acorns for food comes from ethnographic records of Native Americans in California, where extensive oak woodlands allowed acorns to become one of the main staple foods of the region. Also, Native American lifeways persisted for several generations after European settlement of California, so that there was a long period during which Europeans could observe and learn about traditional acorn harvesting and processing.
According to Strabo, acorns were a staple food in ancient Iberia, and they were also an important food source in many early human cultures worldwide. During World War II Japanese school children collected over one million tons of acorns to help feed the nation as rice and flour supplies dwindled.
Acorns contain fiber, fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and because of their low glycemic index, they are considered a valuable food for diabetics.
Some sources claim that acorns are among the best foods ever tested in terms of maintaining stable blood sugar levels. I have been unable to track down a citation for this claim, but it appears to be based partly on studies of the traditional diets of Pima Indians, whose rates of type 2 diabetes has skyrocketed since adopting the “standard American diet.”
HOW TO MAKE ACORN MEAL
Acorn meal is actually very easy to make. Some of your friends and neighbors may make unfavorable remarks about the time involved in gathering and processing acorns for food, but acorns have one great advantage, from the standpoint of labor: This is one food crop that you will not spend the entire growing season fussing over in the garden. It literally grows on trees!
In cooking and baking acorn meal works well as a substitute for cornmeal, and one of the best uses for acorn meal is using it instead of cornmeal in a cornbread recipe, as given below.
I’ve also included recipes for acorn granola and acorn falafel, but I suspect there are many, many other possibilities!
One preparation method for acorns that seems very promising to me is acorn tempeh, but I haven’t tried that one yet.
Many sources say that acorn meal is a good addition to soups and stews, because of its fragrance and sweetish aftertaste.
Acorns should be gathered only from white oak or live oak species. White oaks and live oaks are lowest in tannins. The acorns from red oaks are very tannic, so it is almost impossible to remove enough of their bitterness to make them palatable. White oaks have leaves with rounded lobes; red oaks have leaves with pointed lobes.
You will naturally want to choose the largest possible acorns to gather. In my area, the white oaks with the largest acorns are burr oaks. With the acorn cap still on them, burr oak acorns are about the size of golf balls—pretty big, for an acorn—and once shelled, the kernels are about an inch in diameter.
Acorns can be gathered after they fall from the tree, but it’s also okay to pick full-size, still-green acorns before they fall. They are often a little milder in flavor and easier to shell if gathered still green.
Processing Acorns To Make Acorn Meal
Shell acorns to remove kernels. Cut away any insect damage, where reasonably possible. Discard badly damaged kernels. Remove as much of the brown husk or outer skin around kernels as possible. Halve each kernel and place the kernels in a pot of cold water as you finish shelling small batches. Submerging kernels in water soon after shelling will prevent them from becoming discolored through contact with air.
When you have a large batch of acorn kernels in the pot, add plenty of water. Water level should be about double the volume of acorns. (More water means more efficient leaching.)
Bring the water to a boil, let simmer for 10-15 minutes, drain, add more cold water, and repeat until the water in the pot of acorns is clear. Even with white oak acorns that are fairly low in tannins, you will probably have to boil and drain at least five times.
I boiled and drained my acorns four times one evening, refilled the pot with water and let the acorns stand overnight, and then boiled and drained the acorns a fifth time.
While the acorns are boiling, they will fill the house with their unique, rich fragrance. The first time I smelled it, it seemed reminiscent of coconut. Now I’m not so sure. Acorns have a wonderful smell, but it’s something altogether different.
After the acorns have cooled a bit, put them in a blender in small batches and grind them to the consistency of meal. Place the damp acorn meal in shallow baking pans, such as pie pans or other shallow baking dishes and place in the oven at a low temperature (the same as you would use for dehydrating fruits). Give the meal an occasional stirring, to ensure even drying.
When the acorn meal is completely dry, allow it to cool before storing in plastic freezer bags. I would store these in the freezer. Acorn meal intended for use in a reasonably short amount of time can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature.
Alternative Approach: Perhaps the easiest approach to leaching the bitter tannins from shelled acorns is this one, which was suggested by one of many books on collecting and preparing wild foods: Put shelled acorns in a mesh bag in your toilet tank. We are talking about the toilet tank, not the toilet bowl.That way, every time the toilet is flushed, fresh water will be supplied to renew the leaching process. Remove the mesh bag of acorns after about 24 hours, at which point they should be free of bitterness.
It would be a good idea to drain and scrub the toilet tank before doing this, since minerals build up there, and the water often has a strongly mineral taste that you won't want your acorns to take on.
This approach mimics the traditional Native American approach of letting shelled acorns leach in a running stream. While most of us don't have access to a running stream of clean water, most of us to have access to a toilet tank.
USING ACORN MEAL IN COOKING
Acorn meal works well as a substitute for cornmeal. Try using it, as below, as a substitute for cornmeal in cornbread. It could be substituted for cornmeal in just about any recipe calling for cornmeal: E.g., try dredging fish in acorn meal or a combination of acorn meal, flour, and seasonings before frying, or try making acorn meal hush puppies or “polenta.”
This recipe is simply a cornbread recipe in which acorn meal has been substituted for cornmeal. The flavor is “different,” but very good, and there is something very special about the fragrance of acorns in baked goods.
Honey or brown sugar is optional in this recipe, because the true old-timer (especially if a Southerner) believes that cornbread—and presumably acorn bread—should not be sweetened. As my mother used to say, “It’s bread, not cake.” Northerners usually prefer their cornbread lusciously sweetened. I’ll take it either way. As one of my students remarked to me, many years ago, “I could eat cornbread all day.”
I am very much in favor of using coconut oil wherever oil is called for in a recipe—or for substituting butter for oil. It makes quite a difference. I also think that coconut milk goes especially well with acorn meal, while admitting that buttermilk is hard to beat. Though these little improvements to your usual cornbread recipe are not necessary, they are definitely worthwhile.
Preheat oven to 350°.
1 ½ cups acorn meal
1 cup flour (white, whole wheat, or spelt)
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoons melted butter or coconut oil
1 ½ cups milk (buttermilk, coconut milk, or almond milk are also okay)
½ cup honey or brown sugar (optional)
Thoroughly mix together dry ingredients, then add egg, milk, oil, and honey or brown sugar.
Put batter in a buttered baking pan. (A large pie pan will be about the right size.) Bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, or until lightly browned.
This recipe makes a richly fragrant, chocolate-brown bread that is good served with butter, jam, or fruit, such as blueberries.
My recipe for falafel calls for grinding chickpeas that have been soaked in water overnight, but not cooked. Fresh acorns that have been thoroughly leached by boiling and ground up, but not yet dried in the oven are perfectly suited for making falafel.
1 cup leached acorns (make it a rounded one cup)
1 teaspoon cumin
½ large onion, chopped
2 teaspoons parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cayenne flakes
4 cloves garlic
4-6 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Oil for frying
Blend everything but the flour and baking powder in a blender. Add a little water to make it a little smoother, if needed.
Turn this dough into a bowl and mix in the baking powder and enough flour that the dough forms a ball without sticking to your hands. Refrigerate the dough, covered, for and hour or more. Shape dough into walnut-size balls and fry in oil till golden brown, flattening them as they fry to help them cook through.
Falafel is served by tucking several pieces into a pita pocket and adding lettuce, onion, tomato and a dressing or sauce, such as hummus. Ranch dressing or raita (a yogurt dressing, often made with cucumbers) would also be good.
As with acorn bread, that surprising acorn fragrance comes through!
Acorn Granola Bars
This is similar to Helen Nearing’s granola recipe, which is highly adaptable to begin with and hence easily adapted to use acorn meal.
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup acorn meal
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup raisins
1 cup brown sugar
1 mashed bananas (optional)
Water enough to make a heavy dough
Mix together all the ingredients but the water, then add just enough water to make a heavy dough, like cookie dough. Press the dough into a greased pan and bake at 350° for 20-30 minutes.
I personally like to make these granola bars in a corn-stick pan—one of those pans with molds shaped like ears of corn. It’s more trouble, but you get granola bars that are a convenient size and shape, and that look pretty served in a napkin-lined basket.
Before I began processing my acorns to use in cooking, I decided I should first think about how I was really most likely to use the finished product. I thought I would get the most use from acorn meal by eating it as a breakfast cereal—probably mixed with other grains.
It turns out that acorn meal makes such heavenly baked goods that the breakfast cereal angle takes a back seat. But it’s still good as a breakfast cereal. Just add milk—or coconut or almond milk.
Acorn meal also makes a handy pre-cooked breakfast cereal combined with other grains. One of my favorite breakfast foods is steel-cut oats mixed with acorn meal, soaked overnight in coconut milk. (Cow’s milk or other types of milk may be used.)
In the morning, add fresh fruit or thawed frozen fruit, such as blueberries or strawberries, and honey or other sweetening.
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