Story by Jenna Rozelle. Jenna is a wild foods educator, writer and outdoor enthusiast. She offers guidance to people and businesses who want to safely and ethically incorporate wild foods into their lives. She lives in southwestern Maine, where she and her husband care for their homestead and plant nursery, Thickery Pricket Farm. Find her at jennarozelle.com.
When you think of Maine food crops you probably think of something like blueberries, lobster or potatoes, right?
Acorns don’t make most people’s list of quintessential Maine foods, but that’s not because we don’t grow acorns here — it’s because we don’t eat them.
Maine is unique in that many of our beloved food crops aren’t the standard row crops of industrial agriculture, but instead, they’re native species being tended to by humans. This is my favorite form of food production and I think Maine and oak trees are both well suited for it.
Luckily, there are oak trees already growing in every county of the state, so all we have to do is maintain a healthy habitat and show up in time to collect a few acorns each fall before they get gobbled up by other animals.
Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) is our dominant species and their acorns tend to drop most heavily here in October. The number of acorns will vary from year to year, but even on a light year, there are always some to be found. The easiest place to collect is where they’ve fallen on short grass or even pavement, where you can rake and shovel them, but hand-picking in a hardwood forest is a lot more picturesque.
Whichever method you choose, you want to inspect as you go and discard anything with attached caps, holes, discoloration, mold, or bulging shells.
Once you get your acorns home, the next step is to dry them. The easiest way to do this is by spreading single layers of acorns in wide, shallow cardboard boxes like tomato flats and keeping them somewhere warm and dry for a couple of weeks until the nutmeat is rock hard. Once they’re fully dry, they can be stored in their shells for years and processed at your leisure.
Shelling is the most laborious part, but I’ve found it’s a great way to stay productive and keep from going stir-crazy on those long winter nights. I’ve used a mortar and pestle, a nutcracker, a hammer, and all other manners of cracking methods — they all work. For larger quantities, I would suggest a commercial-grade cracker with a hopper and crank.
Once the shells are cracked you simply pick out the nuts, which usually come out in tidy wholes or halves, and toss the shells. The nuts have a brown, papery skin called a “testa” that you want to rub off by roughing up the acorns between your hands or against a piece of hardware cloth.
Leaching is next, and it’s the most important step. Many people prefer cold leaching because you get a complete flour that doesn’t need to be mixed with wheat flour to make it stick to itself, but I love the speed and versatility of hot leaching, and that’s how I do the majority of my acorns, so that’s what I’ll share here.
Really, all it takes is time and water. You can leave your acorns in halves or you can pound them into smaller chunks, but you don’t want to grind them until later. Put your pieces in a pot, cover with hot water and boil for at least 30 minutes before draining. Repeat this process as many times as it takes until your acorns are not bitter at all.
I do a taste test in between each change of hot water and it’s easy to get impatient and say “good enough” after a few changes, but I implore you to keep leaching until they are positively bland. This is a great time to employ a woodstove if you have one, or even leave them on low heat overnight in a lot of water.
Once you’re happy with the taste, drain that last change of water into a mug, sweeten with maple syrup and enjoy that “acorn milk” as the first of many tasty rewards for your labor.
You can use your acorns now or you can dry them again to store for later. I like to dry them in bigger pieces and pound them into smaller bits or grind into flour in small batches as wanted throughout the year.
Opening a jar of dried acorns is one of my favorite smells in the world — like the distilled essence of maple and nut. The flavor is mild, rich and toasty with a hearty crunch that keeps you reaching for more, and go ahead — reach for more — they’re a densely nutritious food, complete with carbohydrates, protein, and valuable oils.
I love to candy small pieces in maple syrup to pour over ice cream for a sundae that puts maple-walnut to shame. They’re perfect to replace store-bought nuts in your favorite baked goods and hot cereals.
They play just as well on the savory side in soup, chili, tacos or burgers in place of or mixed in with meat or beans.
First things first, though: grind some of your acorns into flour, mix it 1:1.25 acorn to wheat, use your favorite blueberry pancake recipe, warm up the maple syrup and have a real taste of home.