Harvesting and Eating Acorns

Eating acorns is a nutritious dietary practice, and they are tasty little nutmeats if processed appropriately to remove tannic acids.

  • Acorn with oak leafs in fall.
    Photo by iStockphoto.com/Hans Laubel
  • The bulging cheeks of the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), as it feeds and stores acorns for winter, is a common sight during fall in eastern North America.
    Photo by Dave and Steve Maslowski
  • Acorn weevils are the pest typically at fault for ruining a good acorn crop. However, you can test for infestations both in the field and once you gather your acorns to your processing location.
    Photo by iStockphoto.com/Vitalii Hulai
  • Acorns on the forest floor.
    Photo by Lori Dunn

Developing a process by which to turn the bitter nut of the oak tree into a viable and nutritious food staple was one of the greater innovations of mankind. Early Homo sapiens recognized the potential of a tree that produced nuts in massive quantities, were easy to crack and shell, and easily stored for long periods of time. Rendering acorns edible allowed humans to subsist over barren winters and conquer new lands where food sources would have otherwise been uncertain.

Long before the primitive grain that would one day be called maize made its way from South American tribes to the farms of indigenous North America, it was the simple yet ubiquitous fruit of the oak tree that provided the natives of this continent a staple food source from which to live and thrive. Before any European or African set foot on this continent, before America ever knew the likes of horses or metal, the inhabitants of this continent were “paleo” before paleo was cool.

Though there are some places in the world where the acorn is still eaten as a sort of novelty, it has all but fallen out of grace with the pallet of modern man.

Why so bitter?

For ancient humans, this seemingly perfect food had but one caveat — tannic acid. This substance is not only extremely bitter tasting to humans, but also toxic in high doses. Even in lesser amounts, it can cause nausea and digestive distress. This is the same substance found in many foods such as the skins of wine grapes and is referred to as tannin. If you follow the path of your ancestors and learn how to remove the tannins from acorns, you will find that this bitter little nut can become quite edible.

Here in Southern Indiana, acorns start falling in mid-late September and continue through early November, depending on species and environmental factors. I collect acorns from a variety of species, some large, some small, some red, some white. I rarely differentiate them in the field, as they will all require processing. I may separate red group and white group acorns if I have a substantial number of either or both. Mostly, if I separate acorns at all, I separate them by size. If you are getting your acorns from a few trees of the same variety, this is not an issue. However, if you are like me and gather acorns from a great variety of oaks from multiple locations, this can become important.

In North America there are roughly 60 species of oaks that are native to the United States and still many more that have been intentionally imported or accidentally naturalized from Europe and Asia. The specific identification of each of these individual species is far beyond the scope of this article, just note that all are edible after processing. Therefore, let us keep to the two main subgroups of oaks that are prevalent in North America, red oaks and white oaks.

12/3/2016 9:39:57 PM

is there a way to leach the tannins out of the whole nuts so they can be eaten like walnuts or cashews?

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