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.

| September/October 1980

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.


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.

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!

1/13/2015 11:22:33 AM

Save the hulls and scatter them lightly on slippery sidewalks. They give excellent traction, cause no damage to sidewalks, and when the ice is gone, just sweep them off in the grass.

8/2/2014 2:29:59 PM

My shaggy hickory tree is dropping nuts, green and out of the shell by the bucket full. It's August, all I have found are rotten in and out of the shell what's the problem, any thoughts?

1/18/2014 6:46:32 PM

We found that if you cut a small, shallow divet just large enough to hold the hickory nut, into a wooden board ( we used a small round cutting board ) Place the nut with the 'seam' side up. Using a heavy bladed knife, place the blade against the 'seam' then tap it with a hammer. The nut will break in half. Using different sized wire cutters we are able to cut the shell away leaving large pieces of the nut meat.

10/4/2013 8:15:43 AM

DO you have to roast them before shelling?

C.D.@ Austin Tejas
6/1/2011 4:18:29 PM

I always like to enlighten Yankees. Try this trick with your hickory nuts and you will want to Whistle Dixie … Smoke em'. ! Take your clean hickory nuts, one or two pounds and soak them in water overnight. Take out and let dry. Keeps good in paper sack. And the next time you have a BB-Q or cook outdoors on the grill , add one quarter 1/4 lb. too your fire box, charcoals or to your gas grill lava stones .... They will crackle and pop so be careful, but the incredible hickory smoke flavor will make your mouth water. The delicious smoke will make plain old hamburger taste just incredible. .. Steaks and fajitas will will explode with hickory flavor... You will hardly be able to stand it .... its so good.

9/28/2009 4:00:28 PM

We've lived in the same home in NJ for 56 years and have never seen such a bountiful crop of hickory nuts.Probably because of our rainy and cool summer. I've collected and husked them,I'll dry them and hope that I can crack them. Hope that they taste as good as everybody says that they do. Thanks for all the helpful hints.

Linda Simons_3
7/9/2009 10:47:10 AM

This is my confirmation, hope this is what you need, Thanks Linda Simons

Michael Haynes
12/6/2008 10:14:10 AM

I have been cracking hickory nuts for several years and have found that the best way is by using a pair of Vice Grips. Just set the jaws so that when squeezed to the locked position, the shell cracks sufficiently without crushing the meat. Since the shells are not perfectly round, you can place them in the jaws in such a way that you don't have to constantly adjust the VGs. Cup your free hand around the jaws to prevent shells from flying all over and you can do this about anywhere. Very fast and efficient.

10/30/2008 9:23:33 AM

We have 23 acres of wooded property with many hickory trees. There are so many nuts this year, and my husband has been cracking them even though they are so small. On a walk through the woods yesterday I discovered a huge shaggy bark hickory that had large nuts all around it. I was so excited because the nuts are the size of an English walnut. However, when we came in and started cracking them, the meat was all shriveled and dryed. What a disappointment! Can anyone explain this? I can't think they were just old nuts as they weren't pushed down into the soil. Also we gathered all we could find around that tree, so I would think at least some would be the new harvest.

Barbara Sheehan_1
10/13/2008 9:40:57 AM

Hi, My name is Barb Sheehan and I live in a rural area of mid-east Illinois near the border of Indiana. The Hickory Nut harvest is very big this year and the nuts are large and meaty. I have found the easiest way to crack a hickory nut, and be able to extract whole sides, is to use a vise. I place the hickory nut with the natural split parallel with the vise teeth. I squeeze until the first crack appears and then just a little more. I have now extracted 10 cups and still going by this method. Thank you for letting me add my two cents worth. Barb

Kansas Waterboy
9/15/2008 7:16:19 AM

Thanks for all the excellent advice on how to get those little nut safes open. However, using the outer hulls as a garden mulch is a bad idea. These hulls contain large amounts of tannic acid and if introduced into an average vegetable or flower garden, will render the soil far too acidic to sustain most garden plants. Again, thanks for the tips.

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