The Ozarks are blessed with an abundance of wild food, including the oh-so-delectable black walnut. Each fall, the huge green fruits come crashing down into parks, yards, and a multitude of public spaces, making them easy game for any wild or urban forager. Indeed, why pay $5 for a 4 ounce bag of nutmeats when you’ve got black walnut trees around? That’s just nuts! The problem most people face isn’t acquiring enough nuts to make it worth their while, it’s the cleaning, cracking and picking that really gets them. So, if you’ve never done it before because you’ve heard how hard they are to deal with, I hope this post will make the cleaning, cracking and picking of black walnuts just a little bit easier.
The fruit of black walnuts are made up of three layers; the husk, the shell, and the nut. The husk starts out as a thick, hard, green covering that has a distinct lemony smell when bruised or scratched. Once the nuts within the husk begin to ripen, the fruits fall from the tree – often starting as early as late August. Once the fruit hits the ground (and sometimes even before that) the firm green husk begins to deteriorate. It starts with a few black spots that spread and multiply in number until the entire husk is soft and squishy. And whether the husk is completely green or totally black, the husk contains oils that turn everything they touch, including clothes, skin and even plastic buckets, a deep yellowish-brown color.
Within the husk is a very attractive oblong, chocolaty-brown shell that has thin, raised ridges running from stem end to blossom end. Walnut shells are extremely hard and difficult to crack, even with a hammer. The shell is so hard that special, steel pressure-type nut crackers are needed to open them without crushing the nutmeat inside.
Before cracking a black walnut, the hulls must be removed. This can be a messy job, but it absolutely must be done. Walnut buyers set up shop in various places during harvest time. Here they de-hull the nuts using a machine that grinds off the hulls before weighing the nuts and paying the seller. Often times, if you’re there to sell them nuts and they aren’t terribly busy just then, the buyers will grind the hulls off a bag or two of nuts for your personal use at no charge. If you don’t plan on selling walnuts, you might still want to check with a local buyer to see if they will do it for free or for a nominal charge – some won’t do it at all, especially if it’s busy, but it can’t hurt to ask.
If you can’t get your nuts hulled for you, you’ll have to do it yourself. And while they aren’t terribly difficult to remove, the job can be messy; staining hands, clothes and equipment in that lovely, yellowish-brown color already mentioned. It is easy to tell who has been picking and cleaning walnuts just by looking at their hands; heavy stains can last for a week or more.
But don’t let that stop you! That’s what gloves are for! Besides, there are numerous ways of removing walnut hulls without having to use your hands. Running the nuts over with your car is popular, as is stomping on them with heavily booted feet. One clever fellow I met liked to hull and clean black walnuts in an old cement mixer. He’d start by adding a bucket full of fist-size rocks and a bit of water and tumbling them until the hulls came off. He’d clean out the chaff and run them through the mixer once or twice more with just water in it, which washed away any lingering chaff. As the man finished telling me how the operation worked, he said, “It got’em perty darn clean, too!”
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If your doing it yourself, removing the bulk of the outer hull is just the beginning of the process, because now the nut is covered in slimy-black, hand-staining hull-goo, which is very difficult to clean out of the thousands of pretty little grooves all over the shell. After hearing how the cement-mixer guy cleaned his, I went home and improvised my own method.
I start by filling a 5-gallon bucket full of nuts and add just enough water to cover. Then I take my garden spade, which is a long narrow shovel with a D-shaped handle at the top and push it down into the center of the bucket. Using the handle to twist and turn the mass with a washing-machine-like motion, the nuts rub against the shovel blade and each other, which is enough to release the bits of husk and hull-goo stuck to them. Each bucketful of nuts is drained, refilled and agitated like this once or twice until they are all relatively clean. Then I spread the whole works out in the sun to dry. It’s important to let the nuts dry for at least a few days to make cracking easier and reduce the chances that left over hull bits will stain your hands. Once dry, the nuts can be stored for a few months before they need to be cracked and picked.
Photo (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1998707As
I mentioned earlier, cracking these beauties is really hard. Don’t even think of using one of those puny hand-held walnut crackers, either. You’ll break it the first time. To crack black walnuts, you can either invest in a specially-made cracker that looks like some kind of medieval torture device or you can use a hammer and a rock. The specialty cracker is well worth it if you plan to crack a lot of nuts for years to come. Think of it as an investment, because it’ll cost you around $100 bucks or so. The rest of us go with the ol’ hammer and rock technique, which is just what it sounds like.
Before I start whacking, I find my spot and get comfy before donning a pair of safety goggles and leather gloves. Next, I set the nut pointy end up on a flat rock or paving stone and give the nut a medium whack, then I turn it on its side and tap it again. At t his point you can see the fractures forming and adjust your final blow or two to crack the nut open without shattering it to pieces. Once I’ve broken the nut into several pieces that reveal the nutmeat to my satisfaction, the big pieces go into a waiting bucket while the chaff is swept aside. Be careful cracking black walnuts. They’re very hard, the shards are sharp, and there’s always that chance that the hammer glances off the shell and… ouch! Definitely not a task for the kiddos.
I learned this next trick from an old Ozarker, who swore by it. Once the nuts are cracked open, put them in a bucket or large pan and leave them there, uncovered, for up to ten days. The nutmeats dry out a bit and loosen up, making them much easier to pick from the maze of crevices found inside a black walnut shell. Any stubborn pieces that won’t pick easily go into a “crack-again” bucket.
Black walnuts have many uses, but the one that is probably most overlooked is the use of this valuable tree as medicine. The nutmeats are known to contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants such as vitamin E and folate, while the outer hulls contain a healing compound known as juglone, which demonstrates a moderation of antitumor activity and is the active ingredient in black walnut hull tinctures.
To learn more about how black walnut hulls are used medicinally, check out my previous article:
Black Walnuts: A Local Remedy
Some folks don’t want to go to the trouble of hulling, cleaning and cracking black walnuts, but I actually enjoy it as a sort of Zen meditation. The nut picking is a great activity during the long winter nights when there isn’t much else to do, anyway. It’s a great way to spend an evening with the ones you love and have a chance just to talk and hang out. And after the first round, we celebrate with a batch of black walnut and persimmon chocolate chip cookies. What’s not to like about that!?
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
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Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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