Our ancestors gathered acorns from the oak forests in Europe, Asia, the Americas and North Africa. In his foraging book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” Euell Gibbons says that if we consider the whole sweep of human history, it’s likely that humans have “consumed many millions of tons more of acorns than we have of cereal grains,” Grains didn’t appear until the comparatively recent development of agriculture.
A few years ago, I set out to gather some acorns near my home and see if I could eat them. I read that there are two kinds of oak trees. Red oaks have pointed tips on their leaves and bitter acorns, requiring lengthy leaching to make them palatable. White oaks have leaves with rounded tips and much sweeter acorns. I discovered that there are many enormous white oaks growing around town, and every couple years, the ground below them is covered with their acorns.
An established oak woodland can yield up to 6,000 pounds of acorns per acre. Acorns are considered a perennial staple crop, a rich source of carbohydrates as well as protein, fat, trace minerals and vitamins (especially A and C). They are gluten free. If we are going to feed the explosively growing human population without polluting our atmosphere, depleting our soil and draining our aquifers, tree crops like acorns may hold the answer.
One fall I gathered a bagful of white oak acorns in a few minutes, leaving most of them behind for wildlife. Acorns in hand, I needed to figure out how to turn them into a food we would eat. First I put them in a bucket of water. The acorns that floated I discarded outside for the squirrels and birds.
The next step in processing acorns is shelling them, which can be done one by one with a nutcracker or in larger batches with a hammer or stone pestle. Even the nutmeats of these sweet white oak acorns need to be leached to remove bitter, water-soluble tannins. I poured boiling water over the nutmeats and discarded the water when it turned tea-colored. It took a few changes of water before it came clear. I ground the the nutmeats in a nut-grinder, ending up with small pieces suitable for baking in cookies. I preserved them in the freezer until I was ready to use them.
Another year, I made acorn masa by placing the leached nutmeats in a blender, with water to cover, and pulverizing them. Then I put the mash in a colander lined with a clean, wet, non-terry dish towel. After the liquid had drained out, I gathered up the towel, squeezed a bit more liquid out, and spread the resulting mash on trays to dry completely in the dehydrator. This acorn meal stored well on the pantry shelf.
I believe that there is hope for an abundant future through permaculture, sometimes called perennial regenerative agriculture. One type of permaculture, agroforestry, uses crop-bearing trees like oaks which stabilize soil, withstand drought and sequester carbon. But for this agricultural approach to win wide acceptance, we need to learn to love eating foods we never tried before.
So, picky eaters, here’s what I made with acorns:
2 cups lukewarm water
1 Tablespoon yeast
1/4 cup cooking oil
1/4 cup honey
2 cups moist acorn masa or 1 1/2 cups dried acorn meal rehydrated with 1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
at least 6 cups of flour (I used half unbleached and half whole wheat)
Add the yeast to the water in a large bowl. Let stand until yeast softens. Add the rest of the ingredients except the flour to the bowl and beat well. Mix in 4 to 5 cups flour and when it begins to cohere into a lump, turn it out onto a well floured surface. Keep adding flour until the dough is kneadable (not too sticky). Knead for 10 minutes, adding just enough flour to keep it from sticking. Oil the bowl, cover with a dish towel and let it rise in a warm place (we place it on the mantle over the wood stove) until it doubles in size. Punch down the dough, turn out on a lightly floured surface and divide in two. Knead each lump lightly, then place in an oiled bread pan. Let the loaves rise for another hour or so until they double in size, then place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 40 minutes. Knock the bread out of the pans and cool on a rack before slicing.