Oaks have cycles as to when they produce acorns and this will turn out to be a mast year with loads of acorns falling from the trees. Interestingly enough, this is also looking like it’ll be a mast year for apples as I have been watching turkeys in the orchards consuming the drops, so get your apple presses ready.
Oaks are members of Fagaceae (beech family) which they share with beech and chestnut. Native oak species that share the Commonwealth include: northern red oak (Quercus rubra), black oak (Quercus velutina, bear or scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia), swamp oak (Quercus bicolor), chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), pin oak (Quercus palustris), chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), and white oak (Quercus alba). Driving along our backcountry roads, you will tend to see red oak and white oak, and possibly black oak and bear oak. The shrub-like bear oak need disturbed open spaces so that they will not be shaded out and I have tended to find them in sandy soil. Given oaks’ tannins, they live in more acidic soil conditions. Both red and white oaks tend to be long-lived with some specimens living over four hundred years.
Next time you are wandering along the road or through the woods, observe the tree bark. If you see “red-rivers” on the inside of ridged grayish bark, then that is one of Massachusetts’ most common tree species, the northern red oak. Its leaves are alternate, pointed buds and lobes with bristles on the leaves, and clustered buds. White oak have evenly-lobed, rounded leaves and buds with no bristles; gray bark with a reddish or whitish cast, furrows forming flat ridges that are broken into rectangular blocks, and its bark can flake off fairly easily. The acorns of white oak are less bitter than those of red oak. They also germinate in the fall shortly after dropping which is another reason animals tend to grab them first.
Turkeys, wood ducks, pheasants, grackles, jays, nuthatches, thrushes, woodpeckers, rabbits, squirrels, deer, and bear all eat acorns of all available species. Several insect species thrive on the nut-meat as well. Gray squirrels will cache acorns and be able to sniff them out in winter, even buried beneath the snow. They also have a little trick to keeping their white acorns from germinating on them – they chisel into the nut and remove the tip. Talk about a clever little rodent.
Though I find acorns to be quite bitter, and not exceptionally palatable, even after processing, and with using the “sweeter” white oak, there are some folks who love using acorn flour in baking. I am of the mindset that foods are meant to be played with so feel free to experiment in processing acorns for best results.
As you are collecting your nuts, examine the shells. If they have a pinhole that means some insect has already gotten to them first and is eating, or ate, the meat and already left. After collection, place the remaining intact nuts in a bowl of water. Good acorns will sink. Floaters may have bugs so discard those.
Dry the acorns that sank. Then shell the nuts with a nutcracker, hammer, or large flat-tipped wooden pole. For cold-water processing you will also need to grind the nut meat for better results.
The two methods of leaching the tannins – what makes acorns so bitter – from the acorns are: 1) boiling them in several changes of water, or 2) sticking them in a mesh bag in a flowing stream for three weeks. The stream is the simplest method, but you may find other animals who covet acorns take your booty. Some folks have gotten a bit more creative and, according to Leda Meredith in Northeast Foraging, they have used the clean water reservoir in their toilets for cold-water processing. Every flush helps wash the tannins out. Just make sure you’ve thoroughly sanitized the reservoir before putting your nuts in the tank.
Why might you want to go through the hassle of processing acorns to make flour? Nuts are high in protein and contain calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. You can pulverize the nut-meat into flour for a nutritive, gluten-free, flour amendment in your baked goods. Dry the flour and preserve it in the freezer for best keeping. Hot-water processed nut-meat may be eaten raw or roasted. Medicinally, you can make a decoction from the inner bark or processed nut. Save all that water you were boiling to leach out the tannins and use it as an antiseptic and astringent. Decoctions can be used externally as a wash for cleansing minor skin conditions or internally as gargle for tonsillitis and laryngitis. Do not drink! Tannic acid can cause digestive and nutritional problems as tannins bind to proteins and minerals.
Given this is a mast year, I think I will continue my experiments in processing acorns in the hope of having a palatable flour I can use this winter.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appears in the September 2019 edition of The Ashfield News.
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