Walnuts Once More, Week Ending 10/18/2020

In all my years of foraging (yes, all whopping three of them), I have never enjoyed a successful black walnut (Juglans nigra) harvest.

In 2018, I blogged about harvesting and processing the black walnuts, but (if you were reading back then) you may have noticed I never posted about the fruits of my labors. Because I forgot they were in the bag in the shed. Seriously. I remembered them – ok, rediscovered them – the next spring when cleaning out the shed. I tossed them without even checking their edibility.

Last year, the black walnut experience was so bad, I skipped the blog post altogether. I had taken a foraging class where the teacher said you can crush the nuts, because the high fat content of the nutmeat makes it float in water. The edible pieces could be skimmed off the top. I was excited to try this approach; unfortunately, I didn’t realize you still had to remove the hulls first. I crushed the nuts and hulls with a tamping iron, dumped them all into a large plastic bin filled with water, and waited impatiently for the nutmeats to float to the top. Wellllllllll, little bits of crushed nut dust did float up. The larger pieces were too tightly stuck in their shells, and the hull pieces in the water stained everything and infected the edible chunks with their flavor.

And then there was my failed attempt to make nocino. Sigh.

This fall, of course, I had to try black walnuts again. They are too plentiful and nutritious to pass up as a free food, especially in a possible low energy future needing local sources plentiful in calories. If you watched my foraging video from last week, you know the black walnut trees in my immediate area are mostly bare of nuts. Luckily, other trees were bountiful. If you lack your own trees, you can probably find folks who will be thrilled to offload some of theirs, especially if the nuts fall on their lawn or driveway!

A pile of black walnuts waiting for me to process
A pile of black walnuts waiting for me to process

I have yet to find perfect-for-me instructions on how to efficiently process black walnuts. I read this Instructable and this WikiHow and otherwise I’m making it up as I go!

The first step: removing walnuts that stayed in the hull too long. This is particularly relevant since the walnuts were collected for several days before I got them. The longer a black walnut sits in its hull, the more the flavor of the hull will impact the nutmeat. I don’t know how long is “too” long, but if a hull looked black, squishy, or otherwise compromised, I discarded the nut.

A fresh black walnut (left) versus one which has sat too long (right)
A fresh black walnut (left) versus one which has sat too long (right)

I cut the freshest, greenest hulls into chunks for black walnut tincture, loosely following the instructions I found here. (I don’t intend to take the tincture internally, since I’m still very much a novice at the medicinal side of foraging.)

Black walnut tincture made with chunks of the freshest hulls
Black walnut tincture made with chunks of the freshest hulls

I am still looking for the best technique to remove the hulls from the nuts. I tried using my car to crush the hulls off the walnuts, since last year’s tamping iron approach was slow and I had more walnuts this year. However, except for the very top, my driveway is slightly sloped – which becomes obvious when attempting to drive over round objects because they kept rolling away! Additionally, the weight of the car completely smashed many of the nuts, rather than just crushing the hulls. Not to mention wasting gas.

Remember to wear gloves when prying off the hulls, preferably something stronger than the vinyl gloves that are so ubiquitous in this day and age. That’s what I used, much to my chagrin. The sharp ridges on the shells ripped through the fingertips of the gloves, and a week later my fingers and nails are still stained brown! Luckily we rarely leave the house these days, so no one noticed or cared that my hands looked diseased.

Wet hull bits continued to cling to the shells even after the bulk of the hull is removed. I don’t have a cement mixer (I mean, who does?) so I put the walnuts in a plastic tub and blasted them with my hose with the nozzle set to “jet”. It didn’t remove all the hull bits, but hopefully enough. It had the added bonus of providing a quick float test as the plastic tub filled up. Sometimes the nutmeat is desiccated even when the hull and shell were intact. These nuts float in the water, making it easy to identify and remove them.

Then the nuts need to dry for several weeks for the nutmeat to pull away from the edges to make it easier to shell. This is the step I forgot last year! Make sure to keep the nuts in a squirrel proof location. Our resident squirrel crept right into our garage to steal the nuts I had spread on a screen to dry! We stepped up our game, dumping the drying nuts into a critter cage which we then propped up on a block of wood to discourage her from gnawing on the walnuts through the wire.

Squirrel proof storage is critical for black walnuts
Squirrel proof storage is critical for black walnuts

My walnuts are still at the “drying” stage, so I can’t claim success yet. After a few more weeks of drying, I intend to smash them with a tamping iron again, and then put them in water for the nutmeats to hopefully float to the top. At some point I may invest in a “real” black walnut cracker (there’s an interesting survey of cracker styles here).

If my plan works, I still won’t have much to show for my labor. The black walnut Instructable I mentioned earlier suggests an 8 to 1 ratio of black walnut amount to actual nutmeat. Meaning I am still a far cry from using black walnuts as a source of calories … or even making a fancy recipe like Calabrian walnut cake!

What are you foraging this fall?

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