Black walnuts have a bit of a bad reputation, not for their taste, but for the amount of work it takes to harvest them, the stain they can leave behind, and because the nuts grow new trees very easily ( a problem for some, not for others). This fall, we decided to put their taste and time consumption to the test.
Let me be clear right away, this is something that is time consuming. It is not a quick process. If you are contemplating going through this process, I recommend that you find a way to do a taste test before going through the work (only crack one or two open to start). I, on the other hand, decided that if we did like them, I’d rather do a bunch of work up front so as not to miss out on a good harvest of nuts. After all, it’s “free” food. Thankfully, we liked the taste of these nuts, and I felt like this process was worth it for us. Scott and I enjoyed the taste, but his mom related it to something more…unpleasant. Most of the people who tried them either seemed to like them, or at least be indifferent.
Before I dove in, I did some research into the best methods for harvesting the actual meat of the nut, and I cherry-picked those that had the best reviews from people who had tried them. My methods are not the only methods that could be used, and if you don’t have the ability to do what we did, there would be different ways of going about this, so please feel free to do more research of your own.
In November, the kids and I took a quick drive over to a relative’s house and brought several plastic storage totes along with us. Between the kids, our relative, and myself, we had multiple containers ( I think 4) filled with the greenish-brown nuts within a fairly short amount of time. These bins are HEAVY, so make sure that you are doing this on a large scale, you or somebody helping you can move those heavy containers for you. It wasn’t more than I could handle, but only if I were to go a short distance. Smaller containers would, of course, be another option.
With the bins filled, we headed back home. The nuts we picked were all still in their hulls, and I tried to pick as many of the nuts that were still green-ish as possible. The reason for this being that I had read that the ones that have turned black tend to be more bitter since the hull releases tannin. We had to wait a day to get started, but the next morning, the kids and I dumped all of the bins of nuts onto our driveway. They were spread out in roughly a single layer, and we drove back and forth, back and forth over the nuts until the hulls were sufficiently crushed. We did manage to actually crack a few of the nut shells in this manner, but we also had a few nuts go flying, so I’d make sure that you keep other people out of the way so they don’t get hit with fly-aways, and also to be cautious of any glass in the area. I would also like to note that we have a paved driveway, so I don’t know how effective this would be on gravel or dirt.
With the hulls cracked, we parked the van, gathered our bins once again, and sat on the ground for a long time peeling the hulls off. (I have read that you can blanch and then peel the hulls, but it seems like a much slower way to go about this.) People also mentioned that their driveways ended up stained, but I noticed that it wasn’t too bad for us, and that most of it washed away with the rain that we got the next day. The rest of the staining was gone not long afterwards. I had also read a lot of complaints about your fingers being stained a brownish orange color afterwards, but the effects again, were not as bad as I had seen on other people. I believe that the credit due to this is that we had largely picked nuts that were still mostly green. Once the hull turns black, the stain really begins to develop and leach out.
I also noticed that the more black the hulls were, the more slimy and more difficult the hulls were to remove. The kids and I peeled off hull after hull, filling one bin with hulls and another with nuts still in their shells. The chickens helped to peck away at all of the little grubs that were in the pile and thoroughly enjoyed our project, and the kids got to pet the chickens which was equally thrilling to the kids. Our 4 containers of nuts in their hulls equaled one bin full of nuts in the shell, without the hulls. This bin was extremely heavy, but the bins with the hulls were significantly lighter.
The next recommendation was to lay the nuts on a single layer somewhere to dry, but I didn’t have a great location for this since I wanted to keep them away from the squirrels that inhabit our yard. I ended up keeping them all in the bin, underneath the window sill in the kitchen for several weeks. Everything I read said to let them dry for at least a few days, but the longer the better. I probably let mine dry for about a month before I even began to think about cracking them. The reason for drying them is that it is supposedly easier to crack the nuts then, but I didn’t try doing it immediately after hulling, so I really don’t know if there is truth in that or not.
Finally, not too long before Christmas, I found some time to just work on cracking as many nuts as I could. I decided to use a vice to crack the nuts as I had (again) read that this was the most effective method. The vice is located in the workshop/garage, so I waited for a day that was reasonably mild so that my hands wouldn’t freeze while cracking the walnuts. I cracked enough nuts to fill a large paper grocery bag about 1/3 full before my hands got too sore and cold. The cracked nuts were brought into the house to await picking, but we had to wait another week before I could find the time to pick them.
This was the really tedious part. The meat of the nut is divided into roughly four quadrants, and they fit very snugly into their shell. This makes picking the meat out much harder. You can expect to spend a good deal of time picking the meat out, so my recommendation is to get comfortable and enlist some friends to help. Thankfully for me, we had some company over one night, and I convinced some of them to help me pick nuts while we sat around and talked. I think that it took approximately 2 hours to pick 1 1/2 lbs. of these nuts. Again, I had forgotten to take weights of any of the before and afters, so I don’t know how much extra the shells weighed.
I enlisted the help of some company to pick nut meat right around Christmas time. We were all sitting around chatting, and I needed nuts for a project. I ended up making this cake, and giving some raw nuts to the relative who helped us to procure the nuts in the first place. We also gave a portion of the nuts to one of our guests for their help picking. I didn’t save any for myself because we still had a bin still largely full of nuts waiting in the garage for me to finish the job. From what I was told, the cake turned out really well. I know it smelled delicious!
The nuts sat waiting for me until yesterday, when I was finally able to get back outside and do some more cracking. Between cold weather, a busy schedule and other excuses, I just didn’t have time to get back out any sooner. I repeated the process, though I cracked less nuts open and I picked the meat of even fewer, but the bonus to you all is that I was able to take pictures of the remainder of the process 🙂
I am trying to think of anything I may have missed…To us, we decided the flavor was reminiscent of amaretto and pecan. It is kind of fruity, and definitely a different, unique taste to that of a standard walnut. The first time I cracked nuts, one of my boys wanted to help, so he cracked a few nuts with a hammer. While this is effective, I don’t recommend it if you can avoid it, as some of the nuts rocketed off, or shards did, either of which could hurt somebody nearby. He ended up setting up a little wooden “corral” that he would set the nut in before cracking, and this helped reduce the fly-aways. I would also recommend wearing safety glasses as I made him do if you are going to use the hammer method. This is something you might be interested in doing if you have access to black walnuts, and time to spend mindlessly picking away at the nuts. Picking the meat is a good project for when you have company or if you are watching a movie. I also discovered that the really little nutshells do not contain any meat, and are therefore, not worth cracking.
I was interested to see what would be the difference between the nuts I cracked originally, and the ones I cracked the second time would be, since the second batch was wet. I discovered that with the ones that had gotten wet, the nut tasted slightly different (milder), the skin was less likely to stay attached to the meat, and some of the nuts appeared to be almost ready to start growing (if I had planted them they would turn into a tree yet). I think part of the difference in taste and texture could almost be attributed to the effects of soaking grains or legumes. These are after all, a seed, and seeds have a protective coating on them that dissolves as they get ready to sprout. My intention with this second batch of cracked nuts is to roast them and store them dry, using them for baked goods and things such as oatmeal. It’s typically said that nuts will store for 6 months (give or take) depending on storage conditions, but they can be stored longer if roasted, and even longer if they are dried and still in their shells. They will also last longer if you store them in a freezer. I’ve yet to experience rancid nuts since we go through them too quickly, but apparently that is what will happen.
I have read (but not yet attempted) that you can use black walnut hulls for medicinal purposes, and that stain that they are complained over, can actually be used to stain wood. We had a small basket of black walnuts sitting on our wooden bench in the entryway to the house. The wood is unfinished, and the basket sat for months. When we finally moved the basket, there was a dark, sticky stain left behind. I wiped some of it up, but there is a stain that remains. I actually really like the color of it, and was a bit sad at not having thought of that sooner, or I would have found a way to make stain and stain the whole seat.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments, if you know of better methods for storing, picking, cracking or harvesting, or if you think I missed anything important in the details. I’ll try to answer any questions I can! Feel free to share 🙂