Acorns, Why Eat Them?

Acorns, Why Eat Them?

I have read documentaries about how south eastern tribes collected and leached the tannic acid from acorns and use them as a major food source back in the 1600’s, see figure (1). Oaks were once common everywhere across the country before modern farming and urban development.

Figure 1

Muscogee pounded this mica stone for over 10,000 years near the Chattahoochee river for acorn flower.

As a child, my brother and I could pick up thousands of acorns by the hands full, from around an old large oak, and have acorn fights in the winter. Never once did we think that they were food edible to humans, maybe for squirrels. One thing is for sure, if we all fell into hard times or any form of a food supply disruption, acorns are an easy form of nutrition if you had to eat them. What we consider yard wastes after we rake for a “clean” looking yard, can be dried and stored for years as edible food. Acorns can supply needed protein, fats, carbohydrates, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, omega-3 and laced with vitamin E (niacin) if we had nothing to eat, see figure (2).


Figure 2

The anatomy of the common Acorn

The first food crop I would normally consider as a primary form of nutrition would be rice, wheat, corn or peanuts. Yet I have grown some of these crops in my survival garden having to manually mulch, water and keep insects off, moles out, all without store bought fertilizers and insecticides. Each season is different as many factors threatens my yield, yet that pesky acorn, all over the ground, is always there, and don’t have to do nothing but pick them up! Ok, the processing acorns is quite time consuming, yet considering I have to water, mulch, weed, and process corn, wheat and peanuts also, it is not too bad. Unlike corn or wheat, acorns taste bitter, but as the saying goes, “have to eat crow for dinner,” acorns could save your life in a drought, famine or if you don’t have a clue how to farm. Also, creating flower out of acorns, you can flavor the dough with sugars, salts, spices or roast/bake acorns with added flavoring; a great substitute for coffee if roasted black.


When To Collect Acorns?

Towards the end of Summer, around the end of August, start to monitor the formation of corns on the oak’s low branches. Acorns start turning green in late September, see figure (3).

Figure 3

Wait till September and monitor the maturity of the nut on the limb before harvest

Most acorns fall off the trees by November. Every tree’s is different and also by the region where you live when the nut ripens. Remember that you are competing against wildlife. Acorns are also a major food source for many species of insects and animals. When the corns are green, yet can break away from the branch easy, this is the best time to collect them before they fall to the ground. There are many ways to collect them off the trees. Depending on the size of the tree, like a large live oak, better to spread blankets on the ground under the tree as they fall checking daily. For smaller trees methods of using  an inverted extension ladder and a bottom support with ropes for others to hold upright as one climbs up to the branches so to shake or hit with a pole. Another method is to throw or use an archer to rope a high limb and wrap the rope around a small wooden rod with tension and use the friction of your hands or a cloth or “vibrate” the  limb as you slowly release the torque or, simply whack the trunk with a large log.  Some vary large oaks drop so many acorns that one can just collect them by a hand full, even if they are brown yet you would have to look for tiny holes that is a sign of infestation, see figure (4).

Figure 4


Processing and Leaching Tannins  

I have to admit, like every other writer, it is easy to quote another’s post, but I had to work for this post myself. Every post I read, ether the writer “read about it,” “researched it”, or just guessed how to process acorns. I had to do this for myself. It was quite tedious shelling each acorn, but with a small nut cracker, this worked quiet well. I read many posts of those who use hammers, cinder blocks, etc. to crack open the nut. If you crush it, by the hand full, now you have the shell mixed with the meat and you have no way to see if a nut “went bad” by turning black. Also, I did not “mash” the meat of the nut into a mud, I kept the meat in small chunks, easy to handle. The meat of the corn, the “cotyledon”, should be a dark yellow color and hard. A dead give-a-way is a back hart that is diseased, see figure (5). If I were to process several hundred acorns at once, I would crack each nut and boil, the shells will float to the surface while the meat remains at the bottom of the pot. As the meat boils, they expand and separate from the shell.

Figure 5

I researched many methods of leaching acorns. I first balked at the idea that the Muscogee in the Sautee-Nacoochee Valley, who once lived up in North Georgia mountains, use a small fresh water stream to leach the tannins. Now I understand why they used this method, by my own attempts, this is the way to go if I were to process several pounds of flower. The most common method today is to boil the cotyledon thus leaching the tannic acid. This was my attempt. This worked yet the cyclic boiling will remove the nutrition with the tannins and it is very time consuming! NOTE: Do not cycle from hot water to cool water to re-boil. This will bind the tannins to the meat.

Figure 6

Took two days. If acorn meat is soaked in fresh water, they will swell double their size, since tannic acids are water soluble, the tannins will leach out by the current of the stream over time. This may take weeks, not sure how long, but sure beats boiling for two days. The type of nut also depends on the amount of tannic acid. I am tested the Laurel oak nut. This nut seems to have the greatest amount of tannic acid and takes the longest to process. For what I researched, the Live oak nut has the least amount and makes a far better textured flower. But, the Laurel oak nut has a harder, durable exterior shell for storing then the Live oak. So, if I were providing for my “tribe” I would process the Live oak nuts in the fall for winter nutrition and store Laurel oak nuts for the Summer in case of drought. Keep in mind that our ancestors survived the worst climate conditions for thousands of years by simply knowing and understanding nature and the environment. The “super market” invention is a tiny sliver of time in human history going back millions of years.

I collected fallen Laurel oak acorns last year, air dried them in the shell, and stored them in a sealed container. So my acorn samples are a year old yet they are well preserved. Like wheat, I summarize, it is better to store them in the shell then after processing. My belief is that the tannic acids help preserve the cotyledon as it dries. The shell, if intact, will protect the cotyledon in a sealed natural “container”. If processed, the flower has a tendency to become rancid, for what I read. The batch I made up for myself, I keep in the refrigerator for this reason.

Figure (7), the first boil, the meat is yellow then quickly turns grey as the water turns brown. Cycle the bath many time tasting a kernel for bitterness. As the water lightens after each cycle, and the taste of bitterness fades, the batch is done. For me, this took two days. The brown tanning acid liquid that is removed has many uses: tanning leather, as an antiseptic, or for textile coloring.

Figure 7

Figure (8), darken meat after leaching right out of the pot.

Figure 8

Figure (9), roasting the meat till dry or continue to roast  till dark black for a coffee alternative.

Figure 9

Figure (10), used a standard coffee grinder to create a flower of a flaked mix depending on your recipes. The grind can be used hundreds of different preparations including drying for storage.

Figure 10

If you followed the steps above, the mixed with a little of sugar has close resemblance to cocoa/hazelnut blend but with its own unique flavor, almost like purchased candy. Now I will make a batch every year. Next I will try the “stream leaching” effect in water then boiling. Note: Sugar in available naturally in sugar cane, green corn stocks, or molasses.

Note: I am not a chemist, but after the first day of leaching the tannic acid by boiling, I had to discontinue the process at night so I added some table salt to a soaking solution for the corns to sit all night, (about 12 hours at room temperature). In the morning, the water turned blue. Not sure how the sodium molecules interacted with the acids, but what a great idea for dying clothing blue! I am sure this form of fabric coloring may have been used by pre-Columbus Native Americans. Also, this tannic acidic water, the by-product of leaching, could be used for tanning leather. Amazing to me to the importance of a tree nut was for human survival spanning thousands of years. Not just in the Americas, but in Europe too. Now we just throw the nut into the trash, or burn it.

“If you took a gigantic table and laid out all the foods humans have eaten across the globe and over time, making an individual pile for each foodstuff, acorns would be, by far, the largest pile on the table.” John Slattery, author of Southwest Foraging. “No other food has sustained the human race to such an extent as the acorn.”

 “Southeastern Indians ate the acorns of Live oak, white oak, water oak and pin oak trees. They are not bitter. The Live Oak acorns are vastly superior in taste to most others – and can be quite large.   The Spanish made the locals grow corn to feed the Spanish in St. Augustine Florida.   The coastal soils were not that productive for corn and the people no longer had time to gather acorn, fish and hunt for meat.  As a result, malnutrition quickly killed off an entire people. The red oak tree species are bitter and contain tanning acid. There were such a huge number of Live Oak acorns on the Georgia coast, it was not necessary for them to grow corn.” 

Richard Thornton President at The Apalache Foundation


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