Shelling Black Walnuts — Trickier Than You Might Think!

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Quinn
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Recently I wrote about finding a bumper crop of black walnuts on my property and learning how to remove the hulls and prepare them for shelling [An Overlooked Bounty]. Well, that was only the beginning. Two months or so later, after trying as best I could to get them dried out in front of my garage windows, I decided to tackle the job of shelling them.

The truth is, they really weren’t very dry. But by the time I got them collected and hulled, there wasn’t enough sun in my yard to dry them outside. The garage windows are the sunniest indoor location I have, but by late fall they only get a couple of hours of sunlight, and often very hazy sunlight at that. Not to mention that by late November the temperatures were dropping near freezing in there!

The first problem was that about half of them had gotten moldy. I decided to tackle those first. I was concerned about transferring the mold from the shells to the inside, so I began by scrubbing them with a toothbrush, scraping them with a fork, and rinsing them, then drying them in the oven for about a half hour. After all that, I found that they still had a peculiar odor, which I hoped hadn’t affected the meat inside.

The biggest problem was how to shell them. I had been warned that they were harder to crack than English walnuts. Boy, that was an understatement! The nutcracker did no good at all. Then somebody told me — in fact several people have told me — that you have to hit them with a hammer. (Everyone around here seems to know what to do with black walnuts!)

Well, I tried hitting them with my heaviest hammer, and that didn’t have any effect either. The only thing I found that worked was smashing them with a sledgehammer. First I had to find a large, shallow box, line it with paper, and put it on the concrete outside, since I was reluctant to inflict that kind of stress on my laminate floors, and I wanted to keep the nuts clean.

The trouble with the sledgehammer approach is that you end up with all these tiny shell fragments mixed in with the meat. And if you don’t break the shells in several pieces it’s impossible to dig it all out. I had to go at it with a paring knife, and couldn’t help poking myself with it a couple of times.

When I finally ended up with a couple of cups of shelled walnuts, which I had carefully picked through to remove any shell fragments I could find, I had another problem: The nuts had the same unpleasant smell (and taste) that I noticed before they were shelled. Kind of a fermented odor, I would say. I assumed this was caused by the mold that had grown on the shells.

A few weeks later I got around to tackling some of the non-moldy ones. (Or at least not visibly moldy, though they were thoroughly black on the outside.) Disappointingly, the results were no different from the first time.

Possibly the taste-odor problem is due to my not having thoroughly removed the pulp from the shells and not having dried them quickly enough. I learned along the way that it’s important to collect them promptly, and the earlier batches included some that had probably been lying on the ground for several days and had some brown spots. The fresher ones did come out more cleanly, though they all still had a bit of pulp on them after shucking. Maybe next year if I’m really diligent about collecting and shucking them every day I can avoid this problem, though I’m still not sure where and how I’ll dry them adequately.

The real challenge is the shelling. Despite my best efforts (and a huge amount of tedious, time-consuming work) I still found shell fragments in the finished product. Someone will have to show me how on earth you do this, or else do it for me!

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