When I was a kid I lived close enough to my elementary school that I could walk there every morning with my mother or brother. In autumn, when school was just starting again, all the leaves would change color. There would be an enormous orange canopy above our heads from the tall oak and chestnut trees that grew along the road. I remember my grandmother teaching me how to play “conkers” with chestnuts we found on the sidewalk and being astonished when I learned that these incredibly hard nuts lying in the street could be eaten. Hearing Nat King Cole sing “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” for the first time some months later, I realized I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was.
Alongside chestnuts though were hundreds of acorns. I never paid them much mind because there was no game I could play with them and I thought that only squirrels ate acorns, not humans. It wasn’t until college that I learned that acorns were not only edible, but that they were a staple food in the diet of numerous civilizations throughout history!
Acorns are rich in minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, and fiber. They can also be stored for a long time and are easy to transport once they have been processed into meal or flour. All of this made acorns incredibly useful to different groups to supplement their diets. According to archaeological findings from the West Coast of the US, indigenous groups in that area started earring acorns around 2000 B.C. From then, it seems to have progressively become a more common part of the diet of the various groups in the region. Although acorn growth can be very susceptible to long droughts, acorns became such a popular food because they were generally able to make food supplies more predictable. By the time the Spanish started to make contact with the different native tribes of California, it is estimated people in the region harvested over 66,000 tons of acorns a year!1
Alongside indigenous Americans, there is evidence that whole villages in Syria used acorns as a primary food source fourteen thousand years ago. European farmers in the Middle Ages also consumed acorns, and as late as the 1800’s the nut accounted for about twenty percent of the diet of the rural populations of Italy and Spain. So don’t underestimate acorns! They were a foundational element in the development of numerous societies, considering how a society cannot grow without access to food.
Aside from nutrients, carbs, and fiber, acorns contain tannins. You might be familiar with tannins as they are also found in wine and tea. They are a class of organic compounds that can be found in various parts of plants such as bark, fruit skins, leaves, or seeds. Tannins are what make a wine or tea astringent, and they have the same effect on acorns! An acorn, eaten raw, doesn’t taste particularly nice and can give you stomach pain because they contain a high amount of tannic acid.
To make acorns more edible and palatable you need to process them, but don’t worry, it’s something you can do fairly easily at home! There are slight variations of processing acorns, but they each require the acorns be soaked in water to leach out the tannins. The acorns can be mashed or ground before soaking to remove the tannins quicker. The process can also be speeded up by soaking the acorns in boiling water, rather than cold or room temperature water. Removing tannins can take a variable amount of time too based on how much tannic acid is in the acorns you are processing. The amount of acid varies among the different species of oak. Acorns from white oaks, the burr oak, or the Oregon white oak are known to be the best for eating as they contain the least tannic acid and subsequently are the least bitter and the most sweet.2
Once you have processed the acorns, there are various different things you can do with them! Perhaps the easiest way to eat them would be to roast them like chestnuts. They can also be used in soups and stews to add flavor to broth. Perhaps the most popular thing to do is mash the tannin-free acorns into acorn meal, which can be used to make tortillas or as a replacement for cornmeal. Acorn meal can also be eaten the same way as grits, and apparently it has a richer flavor and is self-sweetening. If you grind the acorns even finer, though, they can be turned into acorn flour. This flour can be used in a variety of baked goods, but the most popular use is of course for bread. Acorn flour bread is rich in flavor and in nutrients, making it a great recipe to make from foraged food.
With September just starting, we are coming up on the perfect time to start foraging for acorns. Get them right after they fall before they start to break down or gather mold. It will not only be a fun project to craft something with acorns in the kitchen, but you will also produce a unique, nutrient rich, food that you can share with your friends, family, and neighbors. Despite thousands of years of humans consuming acorns, they are much less common to eat now. You will be connecting with a long history in the relationship between humans and this unique and healthy nut!
Let me know if you try to make any acorn recipes! I would love to hear if you have any success. If I get a chance to try it myself, I’ll write a follow up to let you all know how it goes. Also send me a message if you are in San Diego! I have oat milk, banana bread, drawings, and I’m still trying to find a place to bring my food scraps for composting.
1: The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Brian Fagan, 2008. p121-124
2: The Wild Acorn Kitchen, Fred Demara, Mother Earth News Issue 301, page 50.