The Underutilized American Acorn
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Wren Everett They rain down en masse every fall, littering sidewalks with ankle-turning annoyance and pinging off the metal roof of the chicken coop like a gunshot at 2 a.m. Eventually, they get swept out of the driveway, washed away down the storm drain, or just left on the ground until the local squirrels polish them off. To see how most Americans view the acorn, one would think that they are useless tree droppings, something inevitable we just have to deal with in the autumn, like garden-killing frosts, pumpkin spice everything, and way-too-early Christmas decorations.
But for those with an eye to see, acorns are very likely the most underutilized food source in the United States.
The Oak Tree as a Food Resource
The news that acorns are edible may surprise most readers, but the fact is hardly new. Many Native American nations valued them as an important part of their diets, and some Northern California groups such as the Miwok and Yurok, used them as a dietary staple. And though the cap-bearing nuts have fallen into modern disuse in the United States, they haven’t lost culinary steam in parts of Europe or Asia.
The fascinating thing about the acorn — or rather, the oak that bears it — is that it’s everywhere. Stately trees cover the United States from coast to coast and north to south. Many farms, homesteads, city streets, and park avenues are dotted and lined with mature trees, which means that a nationwide harvest is abundantly available every autumn. And for the farmer or homesteader interested in self-reliance or permaculture, oak trees can offer food from marginal or sloped land unsuitable for traditional field agriculture.
Though there are more than 90 different species of oak in the United States alone, their acorns are all edible and distinctively easy to recognize. There’s no other tree in America that bears a nut with that familiar little cap.
When you recategorize the oak tree as a food tree, suddenly the entire landscape lights up with opportunity. That’s the realization I hope to share with you today.
The first step to turning acorns into food is to gather them. They begin to fall from oak trees around the end of the summer, but the first to drop are almost universally bad — eliminated early to not waste further energy on them. You’ll want to wait until October for the best acorns to be available. Good acorns are shiny and polished, free of holes, separate easily from their caps, and don’t have any discolored spots.
The second step is to get the acorns shelf-stable so that you can process them at your leisure. Left in a pile, they turn into moldy disappointment quickly. Instead, spread nuts in a single layer away from direct sunlight and thieving rodents — a covered porch is good for this. After a few weeks of drying, they can be placed in a bucket until you’re ready for them.
The third step is to leach the unpalatably bitter-tasting tannins from the raw nuts. Thankfully, they are water-soluble, and the process can be done with items you already have in your home kitchen.
A beginner-friendly method for transforming raw acorn nuts into edible deliciousness is through this simple hot-leach process.
- Crack acorns and separate good nutmeats from grubs, shells, caps, and any rotten or discolored nuts. (Throw the cast-offs to the chickens.)
- Place nuts in a saucepan and cover with water.
- Bring nuts to a boil, simmer for five minutes, then pour off water.
- Replace with fresh water and repeat step 3.
- Continue boiling and changing out water until a sampled nut does not taste bitter. Depending on the oak species, this may be anywhere between three and eight changes.
- Send damp nuts through a meat grinder to render into small chunks.
- Spread in a thin layer on baking sheets and dry completely in a low oven or beside a woodstove, stirring periodically.
The resulting dark brown meal can be roasted and brewed into a caffeine-free “coffee.” Cooked in a 1:3 ratio with water, it makes an aromatic porridge that is perfect with maple syrup, a dash of salt, and a bit of butter.
If ground finely, it becomes a gluten-free flour. View it in the same way as cornmeal: it will require eggs or a combination with wheat flour to form a dough. A bakery adds molasses-brown color, nutrition, and a maple-nut-like aroma and flavor. I often replace 1 cup of wheat flour with acorns in my daily sourdough bread baking, yielding a pumpernickel-dark, surprisingly soft loaf. Acorns also make delicious pancakes, gingersnaps, and brownies.
Acorns can lighten the livestock feed bill as well. Ducks, geese, chickens, and goats all relish the seasonal bounty of oak trees. If allowed to free-range, waterfowl can forage for acorns directly, but chickens will require them to be smashed, as they can’t manage to crush them as waterfowl do. Goats gobble acorns wherever they can find them, chomping them merrily both fresh or dried.
For long-term winter storage, livestock acorns merely need to be fully dried. Shells, caps, and stray leaves aren’t a problem, and any emerging acorn grubs won’t infect other nuts — they’ll just get dried right alongside, to any poultry’s delight. Dry acorns can be stored in a galvanized trash can with a lid or a five-gallon bucket with a cover — mice and rats will help themselves to your stash, otherwise.
As always, balance is key to feeding livestock. While I’ve never had any issues with my animals consuming acorns, I’ve never made it the sole ingredient of their diet. Instead, I consider it a supplement and treat for the long winter months.
Now, the information presented here is merely the start of learning how to integrate acorns back into our diets. For those interested in further research, recipes, alternative leaching methods, and historical information, I can’t heartily recommend the following three books enough:
- Nature’s Garden, Samuel Thayer
- It Will Live Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation, Beverly R. Ortiz
- Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons
Though many folks relegate the gastronomic potentials of the acorn to the squirrels alone, I hope I’ve proven otherwise. The benefits of reaping abundant nutrition and fodder from these ubiquitous trees are something that those with hope for sustainable food production can’t afford to ignore any longer.
WREN EVERETT and her husband quit their teaching jobs in the city and moved back to the land on 12 acres in the Ozarks. There, they are learning to live as modern peasants: off-grid, as self-sufficient as possible, and quite happily.
Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.