Hickory Nuts: The "Inside" Story

Though considered difficult to open, cracking the shells of hickory nuts can be done in a way that allows easy extraction the nutmeat.

  • 065 hickory nuts - opening a nut
    The sequence of steps used in opening one of the tough nuts. [1] Lay the nugget on its side and raise your hammer several inches above it. [2] Aim for that optimum impact spot. [3] Whack the nut sharply... and [4] it'll break cleanly into several pieces, from which you can extract the meats.
  • 065 hickory nuts - cracked nuts
    If you hit a hickory nut on the "bull-eye," a point about 1/3 of the way down from its stem, the husk should fracture approximately along the lines drawn on the sample pictured here. (The nut on the right has been cracked, and glued back together.)
  • 065 hickory nuts - hickory molases pie
    Hickory nuts are delicious either raw or roasted and can be used in place of other nutmeats in recipes, such as this Old-Fashioned Hickory Molasses Pie (which is based on a traditional pecan pie recipe).

  • 065 hickory nuts - opening a nut
  • 065 hickory nuts - cracked nuts
  • 065 hickory nuts - hickory molases pie

One of my family's favorite autumn activities is sitting around the fire and cracking nuts ... but even such a pleasurable pursuit can become pretty darn frustrating when the nuts continually shatter into tiny fragments trapped in the maze-like compartments of their shells. And, according to popular conceptions, one of the worst offenders in the hard-to-husk category is hickory (a member, as is the pecan, of the genus Carya).  

Hickory nuts are rarely found on grocery shelves, simply because the kernels are so difficult to extract in large pieces. But you can forage a bushel of the odd-shaped nuts in one afternoon ... and then (believe it or not!) shell them yourself to reap mostly large, beautiful nutmeat "halves." In fact, it's my opinion that every fruit, nut, or seed has a hidden "zipper" or "door" somewhere. All a person has to do is find the combination and open 'er up!

The Mystery Is Solved

A lot of folks think that hickories—which are native to most areas of eastern North America—are well-nigh impossible to crack neatly ... but if you strike one of the nuts in just the right spot, the shell will fracture along clean lines almost every time. I discovered the secret quite by accident one day while shelling a bowlful: I began to notice that if I struck one of the nuggets in a particular place—ping!—a piece of shell would fly in one direction and bounce off the screen door. I soon found that the predictable breakage pattern was due to the interior architecture (or framework) of the pod itself. A membranous partition—called the septum—divides the kernel in such a way that when a nut is struck near its stem end (where the thickest part of that membrane attaches to the outer hull), the shock waves can travel along the septum and through the shell, causing the rugged casing to fall apart in six separate pieces.

Autumn Foraging

The nuts usually begin to drop from hickory trees in early autumn, as soon as they're loosened by rain or frost. But, if you want to forage a good supply, be sure to head for the nearest grove as soon as the nuts start falling ... since this wild food is a favorite of squirrels. The plume-tailed scavengers are skillful hickory hunters too ... if you're not quick, they may plunder your entire local crop before you have time to collect any nuts at all!

Take a bucket or sack with you on foraging trips (or just wear an apron with big pockets), and use a small stick to scratch around in the leaves under each tree. Most of the nuts you pick up will still be encased in their rough, dark hulls ... which have to be removed before you can start cracking them. Some gatherers stomp on their crop to dehusk the "fruits," but I usually pick the sections of the outer coverings off carefully, one at a time. Whichever way you remove the hulls, though, don't throw away those hand-staining pods. They can be used as mulch material for your garden.

Once you've toted your harvest home, you'll need to sort through the pile and remove any "rotten apples." (Discard nuts with discolored shells, grub holes, or a dry and wrinkled appearance.) The husked nuts should then be washed and dried before they're opened: Thoroughly rinse off all mud and debris and spread your hoard in the sun for a few days. It helps—during this period—to stir the nuts around every once in a while, so they'll dry out evenly.

5/17/2020 5:16:57 PM

For those looking for shelled hickory nuts I found some at https://hickorynutsdirect.com/

12/17/2017 8:52:31 AM

I plan on making divinity for my dad since my grandma always done this. He told me you know what would make the divinity better? I said what he said hickory nuts. I said well I have a yard full of them I will see what I can do. So I came across this article on cracking them. Thanks for posting. I know its not autumn but the squirrels haven't gotten to the nuts in my back yard. So its happy gathering I go. Then hopefully buy Thursday evening I can have enough cracked for divinity.

10/15/2015 10:53:04 AM

We went for a walk in a local park the other day and there were hundreds of these — I thought at first they were some type of walnut. I cracked one open, and the taste was incredible, a more intense and flavorful than walnuts! We picked a bunch, brought them home and then searched online to find that they are hickory nuts! I am going to try the method in this article because I have already learned that using a nutcracker does crush the shell and it is still hard to get out the meat ... so I just tried this method, and it is working better than the nutcracker ... but I think it will take some practice to get the hang of it! Thanks!

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