Sunday, July 8, 2018

Eating tanoak acorns

I've eaten a lot of acorns.  Here I'll explain the best process I used and a lot of random things I learned about it.  I tried a lot of things.  My only real experience is with tanoak acorns.  Tanoak supposedly have a higher tannic acid content and a higher fat content than most other kinds.  This means it takes longer to leach the bitter tannins out, but are presumably tastier and more nutritious.  I look forward to eating other kinds, but this is what I have experience with.  All the acorn eating guides I've found on the internet focus on other types, and use different methods.

1) Gather the acorns.  This is the most fun part for me.  Here's a little clip of me crawling around in the tanoak forest gathering sprouted acorns.  I was gathering in the spring, when the acorns were already sprouting.  It is much easier to gather in the fall as they are falling, since fewer of them will be rotten or already squirreled away somewhere.  I also gathered in the fall in the Santa Cruz mountains once and collected five pounds in about 10 minutes under one tree.  When gathering them, you'll get a sense for how heavy a good acorn is.  If an acorn is too light for its size, it's probably rotten.  I tend to crack a lot of them while I'm gathering to get a feel for how to tell the good ones from bad ones.  A lot of them might have little holes, and some people say this means an acorn grub already got it, but I had some good ones that had little holes, so I gather them anyway.

Warning: acorns are heavy.  I was too greedy and tried to carry way too many acorns down the mountain on my bicycle, on a rocky dirt road, and ended up flipping the bike and getting hurt.  I then dumped out half the acorns by the side of the road, rode home, and came back for the rest a week later.

This is the large quantity of acorns I foolishly tried to carry on my bike at once.

2) Dry the acorns.  I simply spread them on a tarp in the sun for a few days before storing them in a shed.  This helps keep them from rotting so they'll store longer, and also makes the bitter skins separate from the nutmeat inside the shell, so it's easier to remove the skins.

These are the acorns I was able to bring home on my bike, drying in the sun.

3) Store the acorns.  For storage, I put them in a plastic basket inside the shed.  I tried storing them outside for a while but a bear got into them.  We still ate most of these.

The mess the bear made.

4) Shell the acorns.  I find the easiest way for me to shell them is using my teeth.  I grab an acorn in my right hand, hold it between my teeth on the right side of my jaw, bite down just enough to break open the shell without biting my fingers, and then use my hands to pull the shell off the acorn nutmeat.  I toss the shell in a bucket and drop nutmeat onto a cloth on my lap.  If the acorn is rotten I toss the whole thing into the waste bucket.  Once I have a few dozen acorns shelled I take a paring knife and cut off the rotten bits and the little red skins and then toss the clean yellow nutmeats into a container.  If I plan to finish processing them within a few days, I'll half fill the container with water so they start soaking right away.

I can do this all very quickly, and I can hold conversation or read or watch videos while doing it.  I fit the acorn shelling in or around other activities like sitting around the fire or eating dinner or whatever.

This is my shelling setup.

5) Crush the acorns.  I tried three methods: mortar and pestle, hand-crank coffee grinder, and a big flat rock and a smaller rock.  Of these, mortar and pestle was the fastest and my preferred method.  With electricity you could use some kind of electric blender or grinder.  The coffer grinder ground them very consistently fine which made them leach faster, but it was awkward to use, messy to clean up afterward, and emitted a lot of liquid out the back during the process.  I have a feeling it squeezed out a lot of the oil, which means the remaining acorn meal would have less fat content and thus be less nutritious.  But feel free to try it.  For a very large batch the grinder is probably faster than mortar and pestle.  With the mortar and pestle, I don't crush them super fine, but ideally get all the pieces to less than 2mm thick.  After crushing I pour the crushed acorn meal into a container with water so it is all submerged.

Mortar and pestle.  (My preferred method)

Two rocks method.  This was when I was bike traveling in the forest alone.  I don't carry a mortar and pestle on my bike.

The coffee grinder method.

6) Leach the acorn meal.  My method is to pour the container of soaking acorn meal into a cloth, and tie the corners of the cloth together with a string.  Don't squeeze the cloth bag yet, as you don't want to pack the acorn meal together before leaching it.  Then I put the bag in the creek, in a place where the water is flowing fastest, and place a big rock on the bag above where it's tied.  So the water is flowing down and into the bag.  In our creek, with our tanoak acorns, the leaching process takes 2-4 days depending on how fine the acorn is crushed, how much acorn is in the bag, and other factors like how fast the water is flowing.  The more surface area of acorn exposed to fast flowing water, the faster the tannins will leach out.  I put only up to 2-3 cups of acorn meal in the bag at a time, otherwise it takes longer to leach.

If you are unfortunate enough to live in civilization or where there are no clean streams around, some people recommend putting a cloth bag like this into a toilet flush tank (not the toilet bowl), so the water is changed each time the toilet is flushed.  Others put the acorn meal into a big jar of water, and change the water every 12 hours, for as long as it takes to leach out the tannins.  This takes a lot longer than the creek method.

This is the bag soaking in the creek..

Pulling the bag up out of the creek.  The cloth turned dark brownish-purple from the tannins leaching through it over several batches.

7) Cook the acorn meal.  Once the acorn meal is leached it's ready to eat.  I've eaten a lot raw, and I don't know if that's dangerous, but mostly we've cooked it.  We've made acorn mush, acorn pancakes, acorn burgers, acorn taco salad, and other dishes.  It's delicious.  Ground flax seed is great for binding the acorn meal together -- just mix water, acorn meal and flax and stir for a while.  

Acorn pancakes

Acorn burgers (we used shredded beets to make them red)

8) Eat the acorns.  This is a delicious step, but it is not the final step; there is no final step.  After eating, you'll want to dump the waste out into a humanure compost heap and use it to feed your forest or garden, and the cycle will continue.

Alternative approach: preparing whole acorn nuts
An alternative approach is, after shelling the acorns, put them in boiling water and change the water every 10-20 minutes.  People say to boil the water before putting the acorns in it, don't heat the water up while the acorns are in it.  I tried this approach and it worked, after 90 minutes of boiling and six changes of water, there was very little bitter flavor left.  I then sautéed the acorns in oil and seasoning, long enough to get most of the water out, and then let them sit and harden.  They are crunchy and delicious.  They'd probably be good baked too, but we don't have an oven.

Sautéed acorns

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