There are few things quite as rewarding as being able to feed yourself with food you have personally grown and lovingly harvested. During the winter months I grow things indoors and cover my gardens with fabric and plastic but there are other ways to eat from your yard during cold winter months. Recently I have fallen in love with acorns. They are healthy and incredibly abundant in many parts of the country. While gathering and processing acorns can be a bit time consuming, it is not back breaking work and can be very enjoyable and calming. Acorns can be ground to make flour, which can be used like regular flour in recipes for bread, pancakes and other baked goods. Acorns can also be chopped and used like nuts. My favorite recipe so far is an acorn and black bean burger. It is an easy recipe and can easily be made cheaply and organically because it’s ingredients are so few.
First, you need to gather the acorns. The quantity is all dependent on your taste and how much time you plan on devoting to the processing of your acorns. Remember, all those acorns will have to be cracked. Although shelling acorns is probably the most tedious portion of cooking with them, it is much easier to shell acorns than it is to shell nuts like pecans or chestnuts.
Once you have gathered your decided upon amount of acorns (I usually stop once I get too cold to enjoy being outside) take them inside and sort them. Sorting can also be done while gathering but it’s much more enjoyable once seated at a warm kitchen table or with a big bowl in front of the fireplace. Remove the caps and check the shell for any small holes. Small holes will usually mean that a worm has been or is currently hanging out inside the acorn. Besides holes, cracked or crushed acorns should also be discarded as they are most likely rotten. Throw them outside, the squirrels and birds will still eat them!
The next part of the process is leaching the tannins out. Tannins are the acid that is produced by unripened fruit and the wood of oak and fir trees. Tannins are responsible for that puckering sensation in your mouth after a sip or red wine. Familiarity with this sensation is important in the processing of acorns because you will want to check to see if the tannins are being removed by tasting regularly. There are a few favored ways of removing tannins from acorns. I prefer to take my acorns and immediately boil them, remove them from their shells and then boil them again until they are no longer bitter. Some people like to put their unshelled acorns in mesh bags and tie them to the side of a creek and let nature do some of the work. This is a wonderful process if you have access to a fairly clean running body of water. For those of us who do not, the first method works fine. Tannins can also be removed by soaking the acorn flour after it has been crushed. This method is very thorough but can get a little messy.
My method: Put acorns in a pan and fill with water so that it rises above the acorns at least 2 inches. This method involves continually boiling the acorns in fresh water that is changed frequently. However, to remove shells easily, one need only boil for around ten minutes. Remove the acorns from heat, drain them and let them cool for a bit. Using a nut cracker begin shelling the acorns. This process is fairly easy once the acorns are boiled. One small crack up the side should be enough to open the shell then the two halves should slide out easily. Remember, you will be boiling and draining the acorns many times over, so tiny crushed pieces are no good to you. They will likely disintegrate or be lost during draining. Try to keep the pieces as large as possible.
Once the acorns are shelled, begin the boiling process. I sometimes like to do this over an outdoor fire but it works just fine indoors as well. There is no exact science to this process (well there is but I’m not getting into it here). Depending on many factors, like size, location and species, it could take different times to finish leaching the tannins. The best method is to boil them until the water gets darker, pour off the dirty water and repeat the process with fresh water. The first few times you will not need to taste the acorns, but after the 3rd or 4th time I would begin to take tiny test nibbles of an acorn. If the acorn is still bitter, repeat the process. Once your acorns get to the desired taste, they are ready to be used as food. To utilize acorns as flour you will need a way to grind them, a coffee grinder will work if a mill is not available. And if you really want to go old school, a mortar and pestle can be used. Keep in mind, acorns must be dry for this to work. I prefer just to finely chop them and saute them with a little garlic and onion in olive oil. Be careful not to overcook them as they have a terrible taste when burned, much like garlic.
Black Bean Burgers: Use about a half a cup (or more) of very lightly blanched chopped acorns. Mix the acorns with a half can or around a half cup of black beans. (This should make about two patties) Mash the beans with a fork. Add seasoning to taste. I prefer garlic, onion or shallots, cumin and turmeric and salt to taste. Then add a tablespoon of flour. Mix together until the resulting substance is almost like a sticky dough. Form patties and fry in a pan over medium heat. The patties can also be baked which will create a more dry texture (think falafel).
Acorns have a wonderful earthy taste that may seem strange to some at first. They have been a part of the diet of many early cultures for a very long time and provide an excellent source of protein and healthy fats. Whether eaten in the home or out on the trail, they can be a remarkably versatile foraged food source.