Baking with Acorns, the “Grain from the Trees”

Eating flour-based foods is truly one of the great pleasures of life. Unless you’re anti-carbohydrates (which I am not), bread, muffins, cakes, and pancakes — especially when home-made and still warm — signal comfort and nourishment and give you long-lasting energy.

In a recent post, we introduced Kernza®, the new perennial relative of wheat that can fulfill our craving for flour-based foods without the high ecological costs typical of annual grain farming: the destructive tilling of soil, the resulting depletion of soil life and nutrients, and the need for heavy amendments and machinery.

But there are other perennial food crops that can be processed into flour, too. Tree nuts are probably most familiar to most of us. The gluten-sensitive among us may already be eating baked goods made out of almond flour, for instance. But baking with almond flour can get costly, not to mention the heavy ecological footprint of a typical almond farm.

Well, here’s a nutritious, potentially free, and ecologically responsible alternative: acorns from our grand friends, the oaks. Acorns were a staple in the diet of many Native American communities, who called acorns the “grain from the trees.” They are a nutritious “grain” that can be locally harvested, even in urban areas, and are freely available to the forager.

And lastly, since oaks are massive trees, with equally massive roots systems and long life-spans, we can safely say that in eating acorns you are eating a crop whose growing process helped to drawdown huge quantities of carbon into the soil.

 

Mark Shepard, in his Restoration Agriculture, makes a case for large-scale agriculture centered around perennial food crops, specifically trees. This is what he has to say about the nutritional potential of acorns:

“Acorns are large, high-calorie nuts. They are rich in protein and minerals and 50-70 percent oil, which can be pressed and used as an industrial food processing ingredient, cooking oil, or as a fuel. Spain or Italy have an entire industry and culinary tradition in place where pigs are fattened on acorns.”

If making your own acorn flour seems like too much to take on, there are a couple of places where you can easily purchase it online.  But should you want to make your own, it’s not that hard. There are a few variations to the process, but the basic steps seem essentially the same:

  1. Harvest acorns, taking care to leave out any that have holes in them or appear moldy.
  2. Shell the acorns using a nutcracker. This is easy to do, since the shells are thin and pliable.
  3. Crush or pound the acorn meats into smaller pieces or a coarse meal in a blender, food mill, or the equivalent.
  4. The acorns must then be leached to get rid of the excess tannin, which gives them a bitter taste. Immerse the crushed acorns in boiling water, boil until the water becomes muddy in color, strain and move to another pot of already boiling water. Repeat until the acorns no longer taste bitter. For me, this took about a couple of hours of boiling.
  5. Dry the acorn in the sun, a dehydrator, or an oven with the pilot light on until they are light and completely dry.
  6. Grind into flour.

So the only bit of special equipment you need is a flour mill. I use a sturdy hand-powered one, and would recommend this choice any time. Freshly ground flour is always preferable to store-bought flour that has been sitting on a shelf possibly for months.

The end result is a rustic-looking loaf of bread, fresh out of the oven. I made it by modifying a simple cornbread recipe, substituting acorn flour for corn meal. I still use some whole wheat flour, too, for both the bread and the acorn pancakes I make. But the flour itself is not at all the difficult adjustment for the palate you might expect from something so… well, woody. It has a mildly sweet, nutty flavor that is utterly delicious.

Have you tried to make acorn foods? Please share your recipes, experiences, and tips!

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