Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Preparing Acorns for Food and Medicinal Uses

I don't know why I have been ignoring acorns all this time. But this year, out of no-where, it suddenly struck me that I should give them a try. Oaks are quite plentiful in my region and acorns are not in short supply. This is how I unexpectedly found myself filling my pockets with acorns earlier this fall. Acorns actually make for easy foraging - their size (at least that of the more common species) is such that bags can be filled rapidly without too much effort.

But before you start picking, it may be worth your while to familiarise yourself with the different species that grow in your area. Usually, where there is one type of oak there are several. Oaks and acorns come in many different varieties, shapes and sizes and not all are equally good for eating, despite the fact that all of them are edible.

Acorns are rich in tannins, a bitter, acrid substance which has been used for tanning animal hides. Tannins are very astringent and in large doses they are toxic to the kidneys, liver and digestive tract. They also interfere with the absorption of iron. This is why foragers prefer to search out species of oak that are naturally sweeter and lack the high levels of tannins. Fortunately, in most parts of Europe the species that has the lowest tannin concentration is also one of the most widespread. In the United States there is a greater range of species and all of them, even the bitterest have been used for food by Native people.

Acorns represent one of the biggest (and most widespread) calorie jackpots in the annual wild plant food harvest, if you can beat the squirrels to them. These high calorie nuts were a staple crop to many of our ancestors around the Northern Hemisphere and we can still rely on them for food today. Coming in at 2,000 calories per pound, this abundant food crop is too valuable to ignore. You can even use them to make medicine. Here’s how.

Acorns for Food

An occupational hazard of collecting acorns is collecting Acorn Weevils…keep an eye out and do your best to leave any with tiny black holes. A good trick on getting your harvest home is to chuck everything in a sink of cold water to see if any acorns float, a high percentage of those that do have been eaten by Weevils, discard these ones.

To prepare palatable acorns, crack them out of their shell and break any large pieces into “pea-sized” chunks. Then soak these acorn chunks in cold, warm, or even hot water to remove the bitter and irritating tannic acid. Note that some books instruct us to boil acorns, but this locks in some of the bitterness. You’ll have the best results with warm water.

Soak the acorns for a few hours. If the water was safe to drink, taste a piece of acorn to see if it is still bitter. If you don’t like it, dump off the water (which should be brown, like tea), add fresh warm water, and soak the acorn pieces again for a few hours. Repeat this a time or two, or three depending on the acorn’s bitterness. Once they taste okay (in other words, bland), let them dry out for a few hours. Then you can run them through a grain grinder, flour mill, or use the classic mortar and pestle to make acorn flour. Add this flour to existing recipes; or try your hand at making acorn porridge, cookies, crackers, or biscuits.  

Acorns for Medicine

Remember the brown tea-like water you poured off the first soaking of acorns? Well, don’t throw it out just yet. Even though it seems like we’re brewing up some kind of medieval potion, crushed acorns and hot water can provide a great remedy for inflamed and irritated skin, as well as toothaches. You can use the first water you pour off from the process of soaking described above. Or you can make a liquid that’s more concentrated by boiling crushed acorns (shells and all) in a pot of water. A handful of crushed acorns in one pint of water will make a small batch of strong medicinal fluid. Soak a clean cloth in this dark brown water, and apply the wet cloth to rashes, ingrown toenails, haemorrhoids, and any other inflamed skin ailment. Leave the cloth in place, and repeat this treatment as needed. For tooth troubles, simply swish the bitter water in your mouth, holding it in there as long as you can. Repeat as need, but do not swallow, as this acidic water will give you an upset stomach.

Ever try to eat acorns without leeching the bitterness? Or perhaps used them as a flour or animal feed? Please tell me about your experience in the comments.

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