As much as acorns are ubiquitous in our environment, they are also undervalued and misunderstood.
Until recently, my only physical interaction with acorns had been using the caps between my thumbs as whistles when I was a kid, and sweeping them out of my driveway as an adult. This fall, I learned from my brother and mentor Daniel Vitalis that these are truly valuable, nutritious, and easily accessible wild foods! (You can listen to Daniel Vitalis, Frank Giglio, and Arthur Haines talk about acorn processing in Episode #119 of the ReWild Yourself Podcast). As someone interested in expanding my foraging and plant knowledge skills, and as someone generally down to experiment with weird stuff, I decided I would undertake the challenge to take some acorns through the process from nut to nosh.
Let me remind you that even though you may see me on Instagram foraging mushrooms in the forest, making wild nettle pesto, and being generally crunchy, I live in basically-downtown San Antonio, Texas. I drive a tiny little Mazda mini-van and I have a Costco membership. I am not an ultra-cool off-grid ultimate-forager mom (yet). I say this first and foremost to admit my utter lack of expertise, but also so that you realize you have access to all of what I'm about to talk about. If somewhere in the middle of this (maybe you'll even read this to the end) you think "I'd like to try that..." you can and you should, even if for no other reason than the fact that there are delicious pancakes waiting on the other side.
You must first know that I went about this process in some of the absolute LEAST efficient ways possible, but that was part of my strategy. I'm a huge fan of Katy Bowman, and what I've learned from her books and podcasts and amazing brain is that where there is convenience, there is some cost being shouldered elsewhere. I've made a point in my lifestyle to start questioning these conveniences and start reversing my sedentary lifestyle. I wanted to take this opportunity to use as much ME-POWER as possible and truly appreciate this relationship to my food. I wanted to fully learn this process through trial and error, much the same way we learn to do math long-hand before we allow ourselves to rely on calculators. (Hey, remember when we used to use MAPS for directions? Crazy.) You can rest assured there are gadgets and tricks and hacks for processing acorn flour, but that's not part of this story.
I also got something out of this I wasn't expecting, and that's an important life lesson for my daughter. My little girl worked SO hard for the reward at the end of this process. She tended DAILY to the various steps and tasks; she was engrossed and engaged and enlightened. She was present for it, even when I was caught up in tunnel-vision toward the end result. My point is that we often think "working for something" means doing enough work to make enough money to save up for the thing we want and then buying it. Yeah, there's virtue in that somewhere but only from the perspective of society and consumerism and the value of money. I didn't set out to teach (or learn) this lesson, but it arrived to us through this process. The work we did with our own bodies directly correlated to the outcome. I'll never hear the phrase "work for what you want" the same way again.
My three-year old daughter and I spent several hours over about two days gathering up acorns. That process in and of itself offered ample opportunities for quality movement: Sustained, engaged squatting, squat-crawling and pivoting, and various seated positions. It was also a great example of what Katy Bowman has coined "stacking," which is where one activity in itself is able to serve many purposes and values. Over these hours together we: spent time outside in the sunshine; we spent quality time together; we moved a lot; we talked a lot; we learned about how to identify a good acorn vs. a bad acorn; we used fine motor and dexterity skills; we practiced counting; we collaborated; we observed trends and patterns in our environment and in our processing. It was a productive learning experience that cost $0. (Hey moms, you're welcome.)
Once you start gathering you'll notice a variety of shapes, colors, textures, and abnormalities in the acorns. You'll want to leave behind any acorns with tiny little holes that look like someone has used a tiny drill bit on it. These are the little escape hatches of weevils, which are laid inside and then eat their way out (more on those later). Also toss aside any acorns with cracks or discolorations like these.
Acorns will look different depending on where you live and what species you're gathering. This particular species is a quercus virginiana, or a Southern Live Oak, and they're EVERYWHERE in Texas. We gathered all our acorns from within 300 feet of our front door. As we gathered, we noticed that the healthy acorns tended to be dense and heavy, darkly colored, and nice and glossy. Like the Pantene-ProV commercial of acorns.
If the acorns are still spongy and moist from gathering, they won't crack well--they sort of just splice open. Much like trying to break a green, living branch. They're much easier to crack when they're a little drier. We filled up some baking sheets one-acorn deep and let them hang out in the sun for a couple of days to dry out so they'd be easier to crack. This is an important (and longer) process if you're going to be storing your acorns whole (which you can do for up to three years). Consult the experts on that process, but once they're completely dried, you can store them for making flour throughout the year. Because of its high fat content, acorn flour does not itself preserve very well and can go rancid, so as I understand it's best to store the acorns whole and make & use flour as needed.
After bringing all these beautiful acorns into the house and giving them a nice warm place to rest, apparently all the weevils living inside felt quite welcomed and thus emerged to greet us. I was sipping my coffee in the kitchen one morning when my daughter called from the next room "Mom, the yellow worms are being so silly!" Kids say weird things sometimes, especially my kid, but there was sincerity instead of playful imagination in her voice. Sure enough there were weevils all over the acorns, on the floor, and in her hands. Weevils crawling a 2-foot radius around all of the pans of acorns. Don't panic, they're harmless (and actually nutritious themselves) and easy to sweep up with broom and dustpan. I was still shocked. I thought I had avoided this by only keeping acorns without holes!
Weevils' eggs are laid inside the acorn through an opening that is pretty much undetectable. As the weevil hatches and grows inside the acorn, it eats the acorn flesh and then burrows itself out (once it's nice and fat and warm in your living room). The holes in the acorns show that a weevil WAS inside, not that it IS CURRENTLY inside. I took this learning experience in earnest and set to forging through and not abandoning the project, and I'm glad I did. I texted this picture to my brother Daniel in a panic thinking I would have to throw everything out (and burn my house down), but he was totally unfazed--just a normal part of the process. I sat back down to my pans of acorns and started sorting. I threw out all of the newly-evacuated weevil-houses first. Then I set about feeling and listening to each acorn on the hard wood floor. Some felt light and sounded higher in pitch on the floor--obviously less dense inside and rather hollow; eaten away by a weevil who hadn't decided to show himself yet. Others were dense, heavy, and bass-sounding on the floor. These sounded right, so I tossed them into the "keep" pile.
A LESSON IN FOOD PURITY
The most important realization for me here was the sterility of my food sourcing. Bugs, worms, parasites--these are are completely normal parts of gathering and processing food, we just don't SEE it. When we arrive to the grocery store, all of the weirdly-shaped, bug-bitten, imperfect foods have already undergone this process. SOMEONE ELSE IS ALREADY DOING THIS WORK ON YOUR FOOD FOR YOU. If someONE isn't doing this work, then someTHING like a chemical pesticide or a toxic wash is doing it for you. I was surprised to learn from the podcast with Daniel, Frank, and Arthur how many fresh wild fish are infested with parasites, and that most of the fish at your store was, too, at some point. They were simply removed before being cut into filets, shrink-wrapped, and neatly arranged on the ice tray at Whole Foods. I was humbled by the fact that I have the "skill" of picking out a good avocado by feeling it or a good watermelon by knocking on the rind, but I didn't know how to identify and interact with the wild foods that were sitting outside on my own lawn. Think about that for a second.
So if you make it this far, don't stop for the weevils. Just let them pass through, they're part of the journey. Learn from it. (And if you're totally unsure whether there's a "prize" inside, just crack it open and find out!)
We went the old-fashioned way with this and cracked the acorns by hand with typical metal nut-crackers (which were SURPRISINGLY hard to find; I had to go to three stores to find their last two sets). It took a few sessions of cracking to "get good" at it and be efficient. My husband and I found that it was most efficient to crack about 20 acorns in half, then pick out the flesh rather than crack and pick out each individual acorn. My daughter would recommend going old school and just using your teeth if your hands aren't big enough for the nut crackers...
This is part of the process that I did completely backwards because I'm an admitted amateur. If you're going to make acorn flour, you'll want to go on to the grinding process next and THEN leach the flour. My mistake was researching "how to cold-leach acorns" instead of "how to cold-leach acorn flour" which are two similar process but for different purposes. In my case it didn't seem to change much, but I want to note that I haven't seen a tutorial for making acorn flour that recommends the leaching before the grinding. This is a blog about my experience not my expertise--so here's a good professional tutorial for leaching acorn flour you can refer to. (And if that's all you came for, scroll to the end for the recipe I used and be on your way!)
I think the most common comment I got in posting about my foray into acorn flour was "BE CAREFUL, ACORNS ARE POISONOUS! THEY'RE TOXIC! DON'T EAT THEM!"
First of all, no they're not. Slow your roll. Far from being toxic (What does that word even really mean, anyway? Can we quantify that a bit?) acorns are just high in anti-nutrients called "tannins" which give them their bitter flavor. For the same reason we soak beans, rice, and legumes to dissolve and ferment anti-nutrients like phytates, acorns are soaked and rinsed repeatedly to leach and remove the tannins. It's very simple whether you're leaching the acorns whole or as a flour: cover with cold filtered water, wait several hours, pour the water off, rinse the acorns, and fill the vessel back up with water again. As I understand, each species takes a different amount of time for the tannins to be removed, and the best way to know is a taste test. Once they're adequately leached, you won't be able to taste any bitterness at all, and the water will be mostly clear. Since I did three separate batches of acorns, they were each started on different days and I was able to clearly see & taste when they were ready. Here is a pour off of the water from 1, 2, and 3 days of cold leaching:
DRYING and GRINDING
Again, my process is a bit out of order and out of whack (although it still yielded the same result). I'm sure an expert can explain the difference, and I do intend to seek out that information. Just know that the pros will tell you to crack, grind, leach, and then dry the acorn flour. I ended up cracking, leaching, drying, and grinding mine.
To dry, I followed instructions for what must just be for leaching and preserving the whole acorns for other purposes other than flour. I laid the leached and pat-dried acorns on a pan and put them in the oven on it's lowest setting (150 degrees) for a couple of hours, checking on them frequently, agitating them, and biting through some of the bigger ones to make sure they were dried through the centers.
Once they were dry, we stone ground the acorns by hand in some Southwestern molcajetes. I'll be honest, this part was not as fun for me, but I still reveled in the purpose and the learning experience of it. It was the LAST step before reaping our reward. For almost two weeks my daughter had been asking nearly every morning for acorn pancakes, and each time I would explain the next step and the rest of the tasks required before these promised pancakes would be ready. She was glad to help with every step of the process, but three-year olds don't QUITE have the elbow grease for grinding flour by hand. At least not 21st century three year olds...
Once the flour was ground, we ran it through a sieve to remove any leftover chunky pieces (which I'm glad we did but was also disappointed in my hand-griding skills to have about 1/4 cup of these bits to re-grind afterward).
TIME FOR PANCAKES
Even after the weevils and the mis-matched processing, we were sufficiently rewarded for our efforts! I perused and compiled various acorn flour pancake recipes into one that turned out excellent for us. You'll find many variations out there. Acorn flour is incredibly lipid-rich, over 50% fat (yum!) and free of gluten, which means it doesn't hold together very well on its own. Most recipes will "cut" the acorn flour with white flour (no, thanks) or some other kind of traditional flour on order to help hold them together. I took Chef Franky's suggestion and cut mine 1:1 with sprouted spelt flour. A lot of other recipes were calling for milk and vegetable oil, which I also wasn't crazy about. I figured if I used some organic canned full fat coconut milk I could hit two birds with one stone on that one. My brother Daniel uses Surthrival colostrum powder as a binder in his pancakes which sounds delicious, too.
Wholly Chloe's Acorn Flour Pancakes
1 cup acorn flour
1 cup sprouted spelt flour
2 pastured eggs
1/2 tsp unrefined sea salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup Organic canned full fat coconut milk - or enough to create desired consistency.
Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Raw Honey to taste
This recipe yields about 8-10 pancakes which you can and should lovingly slather with pastured butter and mineral-rich maple syrup. These pancakes are out of this world. They have a mild and pleasant nutty flavor, and because of the higher fat content in the acorn flour PLUS the healthy fat from the coconut milk, they're incredibly filling and will not leave you with the carb-hangover you get from your standard paper-carb pancakes. I was nervous that they wouldn't live up to my expectations after all the work that went into them, but instead they inspired me to START AGAIN and MAKE MORE!
So I'm sure many of you are thinking "Good for you, lady, but I'm under two feet of snow right now and my acorn-processing opportunities are over for the year." True. Sorry about that. No more pictures of pancakes. But what you CAN do is start strategizing for next year. Do you know how to identify an oak tree? Do you know what species grows near you and where to find a few? When do the acorns ripen in your area, and what pests are they prone to? You have some time to start learning and strategizing for next year. I know Daniel will be covering a lot more of this process next year on his podcast, so keep up to date with the ReWild Yourself Podcast. Until then, I hope as you've read this you've found opportunity all around you for more movement, interaction with your ecology, connection to your food sources, and lessons for your kids.