On a recent trip to Allerton Park, I found myself dancing on walnuts. It seems to be a good year for nuts. You can interpret that statement any way you like. In horticulture, we often complain about walnuts for their ability to keep other plants from growing around them. However, walnuts do provide a nut crop that is highly prized for its rich, distinct, somewhat tangy flavor.
Black walnuts are from a common native tree unlike the English walnuts found in stores. The challenge is getting at the nutmeat or kernel. Black walnuts have a tough hull or husk and an extremely hard shell. But for those willing to put in the effort, the reward of gathering and processing this native delicacy is well worth the time. Tony Bratsch, horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension offers some tips for preparing walnuts.
Collecting Black Walnuts
Collection time for walnuts begins late September to early October. Harvest black walnuts as soon as the outer husk softens, but is still green. The best quality nutmeat is light in color and milder in flavor. If you can leave a finger depression in the husk, the nut is mature. Most people wait until nuts start to drop before gathering. However mature nuts can be shaken from tree limbs or dislodged with a long pole.
Proper gear is important in walnut handling. Wear gloves. The outside husks will stain just about anything. Walnuts were used in the past for dying cloth and baskets. You may even want to wear your favorite football or bike helmet. Style isn't the goal here.
Removing walnut husks
There are many ways to remove green or partially decomposed husks.
- One way is to pile the nuts in a gravel driveway and drive over them a few times. The husk will slip off, but the shell will stay intact.
- Another method is to drill a 1-5/8 inch diameter hole in thick plywood. Use a heavy hammer to force the nut through, shearing off the husk. A 2x4 or heavy foot can be used to roll off the husk.
Processing Unshelled Nuts
- Washing: Once the husk is off, wash the unshelled nuts in a bucket to remove excess juice and debris. Unfilled nuts will float and should be removed.
- Drying and Curing: After washing, the unshelled nuts need to be dried and cured, if they aren't going to be cracked right away. To dry, spread out freshly husked and washed nuts in thin layers in a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for several weeks.
- Storing: Once dry, unshelled nuts can be stored in a cool, dry place in mesh bags, burlap sacks or baskets for up to a year.
Cracking Black Walnuts
Black walnuts have a hard shell. Hand-held nutcrackers seldom work. A hammer, a block of wood, a vise, or big rocks are better choices. Special pressure-type crackers efficiently crack individual nuts end to end.
Nutshells can be pre-conditioned before cracking. Start by soaking nuts in water for one to two hours; then drain and keep the nuts moist overnight in an airtight container. If shells still seem brittle, soak them in hot tap water just before cracking.
Another approach is the personal frustration therapy technique. Place about 100 nuts in a burlap or heavy-duty sack. Strike the sack with a mallet until the nuts are broken into a mass of shell and kernel fragments. Then hand separate.
Allow freshly extracted nutmeat to dry for a day or two before refrigerating in a moisture-proof container. Nutmeat can be frozen in jars or freezer bags and will keep two or more years.
You are sure to see some black walnuts as well as old barns, bridges, and schoolhouses on the Barn Tour in Monticello Saturday October 9 and Sunday October 10 (1999) for information 762-4731.
Originally published by Sandra Mason on 10/02/1999