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Acorns: They are All Over the Place, So Why Can’t I Eat Them?

Acorns: They are All Over the Place, So Why Can’t I Eat Them?

Tis’ the season to slip and fall on thousands of discarded acorns and their hard, leathery shells. I say this because, it is fall here in the North East and acorns are abundant and raining from the sky, and because I have nearly chipped a tooth on my many trips to ground due to the plentitude of these acorns.

My neighborhood squirrels, along with the few birds that are able to plunder their share from my towering oak trees, are just bonkers for acorns, and they have turned my house, and surrounding yard, into a compost heap of acorn detritus. It isn’t pretty, and this acorn debris is as unpleasant to look at, as it is difficult to clean up. Which got me thinking: why should rodents and visiting birds be the only one’s enjoying the bounty from above. Why can’t I eat acorns?

As far as wild foods go, acorns are not nearly as appealing as, say, dandelion greens or wild chives. Even though they are nuts (the nut of the oak tree to be exact) and loaded with protein and carbohydrates, they are also loaded with very astringent tannins, that are not only very unpleasant, but potentially toxic in large doses, to humans and animals alike. This is why; contrary to what you think you may be seeing outside your window, squirrels only supplement their diet with acorns, and do not subsist off acorns alone.

So, I guess we can’t eat acorns – wrong!

While the options for consuming acorns are somewhat limited, acorns have been a marginally popular source of nourishment in many cultures for centuries. Native Americans used acorn flour for baking; during the 19th century when coffee prices went sky high, roughly ground acorns served as a coffee substitute (although the flavor wasn’t reported to be all that appealing), and Berbers in North Africa pressed the fruit into oil. But more notable is the enduring Korean tradition of making dotorimuk, a sort of acorn jelly, and dotori guksu, an acorn flour noodle.

While I am sure this bit of cultural news hasn’t motivated the lot of you to venture outside to collect tonight’s dinner of dotori guksu, you may be encouraged by the recent coverage in The New York Times, which provided an informative, but not wholly encouraging, piece on the subject of edible acorns. Although it states that acorns were once a dietary staple, the article makes clear that, while collecting acorns may be child’s play (all acorns are edible), the preparation to make them edible is hardly such. First there is the hulling, the peeling, and then there is, of course, there is weeding out the moldy and damaged acorns. Then, because of the high tannin levels (which can be toxic) the nuts have to be rinsed in water until the tannins are completely leached out. Expert forager Steve Brill, who is interviewed in the Times article states, “The ideal process is to put acorns in a weighted sack and set them in the running water for a few weeks.” Needless to say, this prospect makes this rustic cuisine a bit more time intensive than that 30-minute meal you had hoped for.

While you may not see me scouring the ground around my house for the untouched acorns that my neighboring squirrels miraculously missed, I do hold a deeper appreciation for this ubiquitous nut, which, if I decided to make a meal out of, would make me as hyper-locavore as I could possibly hope to be.

What is on your menu tonight? Is anyone motivated to try their hand at acorn goodness, or does it all just seem freaking nuts?

Read more: Following Food, Food, Nature, Nature & Wildlife, Outdoor Activities, Raw, Vegan, , , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

118 comments

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7:29AM PDT on May 8, 2011

Thank you. You've just answered my question. I will not be having acorns on the menu - we will continue offering them to the ground squirrels on their dinner table rock.

5:56AM PDT on Apr 23, 2011

I'm not sure if it's worth the effort but I'd like to try it :)

3:45PM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

definitely makes me want to try some acorn recipes! I wonder how difficult it would be to cold-press my own acorn oil? hrmmm..

12:59PM PDT on Mar 20, 2011

In grade school, we prepared acorns like the local Native Americans did - it took weeks of leaching and grinding and drying. Using a local granite grinding stone was said to be nutritionally important to the process. At the end of the project, we cooked the acorn meal & ate it - it was quite bitter & no one liked it, I'm afraid. We all gained a new appreciation for how hard the indigenous people worked for their food.

3:06PM PST on Mar 9, 2011

A friend of mine liked to eat them...I wasn't one to join her. I'm not sure all the work it takes to prepare them properly is worth it.

4:38AM PST on Jan 24, 2011

Seems to be quite difficult to eat them:)

3:44PM PST on Jan 10, 2011

if you eat the acorsns, the bears won't have acorns, then the'll need to take garbage cans, and bird food. then bears have to die.

8:59AM PST on Dec 27, 2010

I've often wondered if I could eat acorns since the squirrels seemed to like them. It's good to know how to prepare them properly.

4:55AM PST on Dec 12, 2010

Handy to know if ever needed in future

1:18PM PST on Dec 10, 2010

Very interesting, and I too have an over abundances of acorns on my property. If you locate any acorn recipes I would be willing to try them!

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