Forage for acorns and use them in recipes with these tips for cooking with acorn masa.
Look around you: One of mankind's oldest and most versatile "staple foods" is as close as your nearest park or forest . . . or maybe even your front yard!
Time was — back in the days when the fruit of the oak tree supported a large population of native Americans — that the hills and valleys of California resounded with the sound of acorns being pounded in stone mortars. White settlers, of course, never learned to tap the rich store of nutrients contained in these kernels (perhaps because they had no patience for the laborious grinding and leaching processes that were necessary to make the nuggets edible), and — as a result — acorns (as food for humans) went out of style in the U.S. around the turn of the century.
And yet — appreciated by modern man or not — acorns (millions of tons of them each year) go on growing and dropping to the ground . . . not just in California (where the shiny kernels are so plentiful in the fall that the natural population of jays, squirrels, and chipmunks can't even begin to eat them all), but in the rest of the country, too. What a shame more people don't recognize this yearly bumper crop for the excellent source of nutrition that it is!
You can take advantage of some of this free bounty for yourself. It's a simple matter to harvest a season's supply of acorns, process them into a coarse, meal-like flour, and cooking with acorn masa by adapting the flour to your favorite bread, muffin, and cake recipes. Our family has been doing this for some time now, and we've found acorn-meal dishes so rewarding (in taste, nutrition, and sheer fun) that we're anxious to share our "secret" with others!
You shouldn't have any trouble finding a suitable "hunting ground" for acorns, since some kind of oak grows in virtually every part of the U.S.
As for the harvest itself: Your family can make old-time fun out of collecting acorns in a shady grove. The work (if it can be called that) goes quickly and, in less than an hour, you should have all the acorn: you can readily process at one time (If you really want to gather the little oak nuts fast, you can take the advice of Carl B. Wolf of the Ranch( Santa Ana Botanic Garden, — who proposed back in 1944 — that commercial growers use power vacuums to simply "inhale" acorns from the forest floor!)
Acorns are best shelled with a conventional nutcracker or a pair of pliers. Simply grip each nut the long way and pinch . . . then grip it the short way and pinch. Presto! Out pops the clean, white kernel! (Witt a little practice, you'll have no trouble getting each nugget out intact.)
If you're hulling a particularly large quantity of acorns, you might want to dry them slowly in a 100 degrees Fahrenheit oven or food dryer, allow the nuts to cool, and then pass a heavy roller over the brittle shells. Actually though, even if you hull the crop by hand you'll be pleasantly surprised at how fast the pile of cleaned meat grows. (And those oblong beauties are all meat, too: They have no pesky membranes or partitions, as do chestnuts or walnuts.)
This is where technological gadgetry comes in handy: I use an electric blender to grind acorn meats to pulp in a matter of seconds. (If you don't have a blender — or even if you do — you can, of course, try the mortar-and-pestle method of grinding. It's more time-consuming . . . but the final result is the same.)
All you have to do with a blender is dump in a cup of shelled acorns fill the blender's container on up with water (the exact amount of liquid is unimportant), and whiz away at high speed for a minute or two. When you're done, you'll have a thick, cream-colored goo that looks utterly delicious but is — in fact — unpleasantly bitter due to the high concentration of tannins in the slurry. Our next job is to remove these bitter substances, via a process known as leaching.
Fortunately, the substances that make most (but not quite all) acorns bitter are water-soluble. Which means that to get rid of the bitterness, all you usually have to do is  pour your acorn pulp into a dish-towel-lined colander,  place the colander under slow running water, and  gently work the pulp around with your hand, allowing the liquid to wash the acorn meal.
Continue to stir the meal in this fashion for about five minutes — or until the "creamy" look is gone and the water runs clear — then taste it. If the grinds are still bitter, rinse them a minute more . . . then taste 'em again. When leaching is complete, the finished product will be rather bland tasting . . . almost sweet.
Ok. All that's left now is to press the excess liquid out of the dish towel wrapped acorn solids, then place the doughy meal in a storage container. The finished acorn pulp will have about the consistency of the wet ground cornmeal that Mexicans call masa. Borrowing their terminology, I call our product "acorn masa".
For long-term storage (a week or more), acorn masa can be frozen. (If the meal is left exposed to the air, it will oxidize to a dark brown color. The taste, however, will be unchanged.)
The possibilities are almost endless! Add acorn masa to mush, stew, or soups. Use it in turkey stuffing. Make an Indian pudding, substituting acorn masa for cornmeal. Or use the pulp to replace part of the called for by your favorite ad, cake, or cookie recipes. (When you do do this, be sure to cut down a bit on the liquid and shorten the recipe, since the wet meal high in both vegetable oil and water) Acorn meal has a mild flavor and makes breads and cakes richer, moister, browner, and more delicious. Don't take my word for all this though. Try making one of the acorn masa delicacies in the recipe list and see for yourself how flavorful and satisfying the fruit of oak can be.
Acorn masa recipes are available at the beginning of this article.
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