Winter Nuts

By Amy Crowell

Acorns—they fall like wayward hail onto rooftops and clutter gutters. They attract a thousand chattering squirrels and sprout, slapdash, all over lawns. Though the spawn of mighty oak trees—the darling of Texas landscapes—acorns have the reputation for being a less desirable yard mate. Yet, while Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn,” did he know that the creation of a bag of flour is in a thousand acorns?

Yes, the acorn is edible—many don’t know that. In fact, acorns were an important source of protein, fat and carbohydrates for the Native Americans of our area. The Tonkawa tribe of Central Texas is one of many that harvested and stored acorns in baskets or processed them immediately into flour.

We have over 40 species of oak trees in Texas and they all produce a sweet, edible nut. In Central Texas, bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Chinquapin oak (Quercus muhlenbergii) are good choices. Live oaks (Quercus virginiana and Quercus fusiformis) produce sweet acorns, but they are small and more difficult to collect and process.

Acorns begin to fall from their mother trees in September, and continue to accumulate through December and even into January. Collect acorns that are ripe—brown in color—and remove their cap and shell with a nutcracker. Rub off the papery rind—it should come off easily from ripe nuts. To make the acorns palatable, the bitter tannic acids need to be leached out of the nut. Native Americans would do this by anchoring a basket of nuts in a flowing stream, but leaching can also be achieved by boiling the peeled acorns in water. As the water becomes brown, pour it off and add fresh water. Continue to do this for 30 to 45 minutes, tasting the acorns every once in a while to check for bitterness. Alternatively, the acorns can be soaked in a pot of water (placing it in the sun especially helps) for several days, changing the water once or twice a day. This slow-leaching method helps to retain the oils and flavor of the acorns.

Once most of the tannic acids have been removed, the acorns can be used like any other nut: roast, salt, boil or grind them into a course meal. Dry the meal and grind it again to produce flour. Acorn flour is slightly sweet, earthy and nutty with a hint of bitterness. It’s perfect for baking sweet breads and cookies.