As I recall, it began in early September.
Quiet moments in my house were interrupted by a sharp pop, then a drunken acceleration down the roof ending in abrupt silence at the gutter. Within weeks, these singularities gave way to violent clatter each time the seasonal winds picked up.
This would be no ordinary year for the red oak tree in my backyard, its hefty acorns covering the ground, filling the fire pit, and cluttering my walkway. My neighbor Ralph, while gingerly negotiating his way to my picnic table on a new knee, declared, “For crying out loud, it’s like walking on [expletive] ball bearings.”
With his words, I came to accept two unavoidable truths: The first was that I was going to have to rake up these acorns. The second was that I was finally going to try eating them.
I’ve been a hobby forager since the early 90s. To this day, several dependable edible mushroom species occupy my opportunistic menu. I’ll also forage anything with berry in its name. Several items that I was told as a child were inedible and maybe [gulp] poisonous—crabapples, spicebush fruits, sassafras—now have a place at my table. Much maligned weeds are my spring vegetables. And though each fall I toil to open black walnuts, hickory nuts, and chestnuts, I have continued to ignore the most abundant nut in my foraging range—the nuts of oak trees, better known as acorns.
Any kid with outdoor cred can justify my oversight—acorns taste yucky. Most species of oak produce acorns that are laden with bitter tannins, leaving the adventurous eater cotton- mouthed with regret. But acorns are technically edible, and not just for squirrels.
Approximately 400 species of the genus Quercus range across the northern hemisphere and people throughout this range have eaten acorns—from the native peoples of California, who considered acorns a staple, to the Korean peninsula, where acorn starch is eaten as a jelly.
In his book, Oak: The Frame of Civilization, William Bryant Logan points out that tools for grinding grain have been found in archeological digs near oak groves where evidence for wheat or other grain is lacking. He speculates that these first food processors were perhaps grinding acorns. And if people across the northern hemisphere, from antiquity to today, can eat oak seeds, then so can I.
In late October, when my tree had shed most of its acorns, I raked the inch-long, velvety oak nuts into a pile nearly filling a 32-gallon garbage can, with a pile of similar volume outside.
Oak trees exhibit the phenomenon called masting, whereby the individual trees in an area produce few seeds for multiple years, followed by a bumper crop for a season. Theory explains why, during lean acorn years, populations of acorn predators— say, squirrels—would shrink due to the dearth of food. Then, as if by coordinated effort, the oaks would overwhelm the remaining hungry squirrels, satiating them while leaving plenty of acorn leftovers to regenerate oak forest. Autumn of 2014 was a mast season for oaks in Northeast Ohio, and with about 60 gallons of acorns, surely I was going to be satiated by my oak tree, if only I knew what to do with them.
I first consulted Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany and found the entry for Quercus rubra, the red oak, halfway through the 1,000-page volume, but was disappointed to find the species described medicinally, but not as food. However, his entry for white oak (Quercus alba) provided me clues to a preparation technique:
“Acorns soaked in lye water to remove bitter tannins … Lye for leaching acorns was obtained by soaking wood ashes in water … [after soaking, acorns were] then rinsed several times in warm water … dried … pounded into a coarse flour … scorched acorns made into a drink similar to coffee … used to make soup … made into a mush with bear oil seasoning”
Although I was plumb out of bear oil seasoning, I had enough information to get started.
Acorn shells are thin, but removing them was a bigger chore than I expected. I started with a hammer, my amateur use of which caused acorns to shoot across the room. So, I instead cracked the shell with a vice and peeled it off. The self-inflicted torture of shoving acorn shell fragments under my fingernails was slow going, and I maxed-out shelling two and a half pounds of acorns in about an hour, which became my tolerable processing time.
At first, I aspired to keep the acorn meat as intact as possible, but leaching tannins became a weeklong process so I settled on food-processing the acorns into a coarse meal prior to leaching. I used wood ash from my wood-burning stove as lye before switching to store-bought pickling lime. My final capitulation was to give up the idea of only cold-water rinses, which I thought would maintain more flavor and nutrition in the nuts. Using hot water shortened the leaching time.
The first soak turned the water a beautiful creamy orange with a faintly nutty smell and a taste that was less bitter than I had expected. Despite the loss of color and scent with each rinse, the acorn meal was stubbornly bitter. Gradually though, the bitter gave way to disappointingly bland.
So my next step was to try to impart flavor by dry-roasting the leached meal. The results were tantalizing—an amalgam of nuts, caramel, chocolate, and vanilla. I likened the toasted acorn meal to cocoa nibs in scent, taste, and crunch. This was encouraging. I ate the meal by the palmful and sprinkled it on yogurt and ice cream. Then I brought the meal back into the kitchen to try out other applications
I brewed acorn coffee (not worth it) and boiled the acorn meal like rice. I ate a rather large bowl of it with some tomato sauce for a savory breakfast that left me feeling full nearly all day, but not in a good way. I added the meal to my sourdough bread dough. It swelled in the finished bread, adding dark nutty chewier spots to each slice. A pumpkin pie using acorns meal as a “pat-in-the-pan” crust was a minor catastrophe, but it inspired me to grind toasted acorn meal into flour.
Soon I was baking dark and satisfying bread loaves that were one-quarter acorn flour. Acorn-flour turnovers stuffed with greens and acorn meal were edible (to me). I incorporated acorn flour into a standard pie crust recipe, which I imagined would be perfectly suited to the pies of autumn. A subsequent tarte Tatin proved to be a gastronomic flop. Nevertheless, I contributed two pumpkin pies to a Thanksgiving potluck dinner and they were a hit.
Despite my successes, the tedium of acorn processing lost its charm and my experiments dwindled after the holidays. But the soul-crushing winter inspired another experiment.
With one whiff from my jar of toasted acorn meal, Mike Nedrow, owner of Chardon Brew Works, agreed to the experiment.
I met him at his brewery on a frigid afternoon in January. He gave me a tour of his beers on tap—which I gladly accepted—to help determine which basic recipe would fit acorns best. I had been dreaming of a dark wintry beer like an acorn porter or stout. We decided on a milk stout.
He started with a recipe for his pomegranate chocolate stout and made substitutions: eliminating the cocoa powder and pomegranate and even some of the darkly roasted grain that might mask the acorn. We modified his hops list since we were using my own home-grown and dried hops.
When it came to the actual brewing, Mike did most of the work. I approached the cauldron at token intervals to add the hops and, in the last 15 minutes of the boil, the toasted acorn meal. After a few short hours of socializing, drinking, and some brewing, Mike poured the cooled wort into a bucket, to which he added yeast, a vigorous shake, and an airlock.
We released the Squirreled Away Acorn Stout on a largely-unsuspecting public at the start of March, when spring was on everyone’s mind, but snow was still up to everyone’s knees. For the unveiling, I brought in two loaves of acorn-flour bread to pair with the brew. Over the course of the evening, I overhead strangers ordering Acorn Stout and watched as they occasionally took a nibble of the bread, wiping the crumbs from their mouth to ask,
“You made this with acorns!?”
Yep, that’s right. Acorns.
As winter turned to spring, I did manage one final experiment: a mason jar filled with a cottony mass. Dark orbs barely visible through the pale tangle of filaments are acorns, cracked opened and sterilized in that jar. I inoculated them with oyster mushroom spawn, which processed the acorns for me, converting them into oyster mushrooms.
I love the delicate flavor of oyster mushrooms. I’ve been foraging for them for nearly 25 years.
And I know exactly what to do with them.