Thousands of edible plant species have been recorded worldwide, but only a fraction of those are cultivated as crops. So, when you’re out in the wilderness or foraging for food, remember that a plethora of healthy, palatable plants can provide something wholesome to eat at any time of year. Nutritionally, some of these plants are a quantum leap ahead of what’s available in modern grocery stores.
The reason we find certain foods in stores usually has more to do with their amenability to mechanical harvest than with their taste and nutritional value. Whether a plant becomes a commercial crop has to do primarily with its profitability, which results from a combination of factors: the cost of growing; marketability (appearance and taste); how well it ships and displays before decomposing; its storage life; and — almost as an afterthought — its nutritional value. Nature’s vast, wild bounty is largely ignored. Tasty, wholesome, and free options are all over the place, and with a little luck, can be found exactly where and when you need them.
The Admirable Acorn
Acorns are one such food source, and can usually be found from late summer to early spring. Some 600-plus species of acorn-producing oak trees (Quercus spp.) grow worldwide. Unfortunately, most acorns can’t be eaten without proper preparation; they contain high levels of tannic acid that must first be leached out, and that requires either long-term soaking or short-term boiling. Still, when you have time to leach the tannins, doing so is worth the effort.
Though they have a sweet aftertaste, acorns have a low sugar content, making them good in stews and breads. They’re rich in minerals, vitamins, and complex carbohydrates, and are a great source of fiber. And though they contain a lot of oil, acorns are lower in fat than most other nuts. Folks throughout the world have long used them as a dietary mainstay.
Like the oak trees they come from, acorns come in multiple sizes and shapes. Despite their varying styles, it’s difficult to confuse acorns with other tree nuts. You’ll find them either hanging from an oak, or lying on the ground beneath it, and each acorn will have its signature “cap,” or “hat,” attached at the stem. If a nut doesn’t have the hat, it’s not an acorn. You can usually distinguish an oak tree by its leaves; there are hundreds of natural variations on the theme, but an oak leaf of most species will be recognizable. Many oaks remain “live,” meaning they keep their leaves until they’re displaced by the following spring’s new leaves.
Beware the jojoba bush (Simmondsia chinensis), which produces a seed similar in appearance to an acorn. Though nontoxic, jojoba seeds have a strong laxative effect and contain an indigestible wax that makes them inedible. You’ll find the jojoba growing in juxtaposition with species of small scrub oak in the Desert Southwest, but the distinct difference between its acorn and the jojoba seed is that the jojoba doesn’t have a hat. Also, the jojoba seed is three-sided, not round like the acorn.
Acorns develop at different times depending on species; some develop in six months, and some take as long as two years. Different oak species often grow side by side and can hybridize. And though oaks can be found throughout most of the United States, they have largely overlapping venues, so you never know what you’ll find. Plan to work with what you have, because it’s all good.
You can forage for acorns on the ground around trees. After-season ground pickups may either be bug-eaten or moldy. It’s OK to eat after insects and grubs have had their fill, but beware of moldy nuts and grains, especially if the mold is black or purple. You may even find some acorns starting to sprout in late winter. These are OK to collect as long as they’re in the beginning stages of sprouting, but they’re past salvaging by the time the sprout starts to form a leaf and the nut turns green, because the carbohydrates have then been converted.
Different species of oak produce acorns with various levels of tannic acid, ranging from very mild to extremely bitter. Generally, the best acorns for eating come from white oaks, such as the swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), the Oregon white oak (Q. garryana), and the burr oak (Q. macrocarpa), because these contain less-bitter tannins. A giant Emory oak in Yarnell, Arizona, at about 5,000 feet elevation, usually produces prodigious harvests of the smaller acorns characteristic of white oaks, and I’ve eaten them on the spot, although I prefer them roasted or mashed into meal. (Like most nuts, acorns of all types benefit from roasting, although in the wild, I wouldn’t bother until I had them completely leached.) Taste what you find; the less-bitter ones will be the best to fix to eat.
Even if you could get past the bitter taste of a raw acorn, the tannic acid may give you a bellyache and can cause constipation or diarrhea. Don’t try to develop a tolerance for it, because you could experience kidney damage over time if you don’t properly leach out the tannic acid. Cattle and horses can develop an unhealthy taste for oak leaves and acorns that can lead to ailments, but pigs are immune. Acorns of all types are a nutritious staple for feral pigs.
To turn acorns into people food, removing the tannins is a small but necessary hassle considering the valuable product you’ll end up with. You’ll know when the acorns have been “fixed,” because they’ll no longer be bitter. Luckily, nearly all acorns can be made usable with simple leaching, which renders them nutty, sweet, and quite healthy.
Mighty Meals from Acorns Grow
You can make a cooked mush with acorn meal, much as you would with cornmeal. Your favorite recipe for corn dodgers, or “hush puppies” is also directly adaptable to acorn meal, which also makes for good tortillas if you prepare them a little thick. If you like grits, acorn meal is for you; it’s similar, but with a richer flavor. Cook it and eat it the same ways: with gravy, jam, or whatever you like. Overall, I think you’ll find acorn meal to be mildly flavored and self-sweetening.
To make acorn flour, run the leached whole or coarsely ground nuts through a food grinder or blender. If the flour is damp, spread it out on a baking sheet and dry it in the oven on low heat. Then regrind the flour, if needed, to the fineness you want. Use it in breads, either by itself or with other flours; a little cattail flour will make it hang together better. It can be added to baked goods, but it might make some breads a little heavy, so use slightly more yeast.
Detoxing acorns is a simple task. I’ve found it’s best to coarsely grind, or at least mash, the acorns before leaching, as this gives the water better access to the kernels. In the wilderness, you can shell and mash acorns at the same time, and you won’t need any special tools to do so; you can make some surprisingly decent flour with just a couple of flat rocks. Place an acorn on a flat rock, and crack it open with another flat rock. Remove the shell (and the corklike husk that some species have), and proceed to mash the acorn into a meal, or as flat as you can, so it will leach efficiently. Once you’ve shelled and ground a usable amount, tie it in a tightly woven cloth and leave it in a fast-running stream for a day or two until the acorns are no longer bitter.
Alternatively, tie the shelled acorns or acorn meal into a cloth and bring it to a boil in plenty of water. Continue boiling for about 15 minutes. The water will turn brown as the tannic acid is leached out. Drain the water and replace it with fresh. Reboil the acorns, throwing out the brown water, several times if necessary, until the water is clear. When using whole acorns, the boiling process can take two or three hours, though the time varies with the amount of tannic acid in the acorns. You’ll know your acorns have been properly leached when they’ve lost their bitterness and have turned a dark-brown color. After they’ve been thoroughly leached, dry or roast the acorns to eat. If you’re in the wild and intend to eat the leached meal immediately, you can dry it until it’s damp, then press it into cakes. Sprinkle them with a little salt, and roast them on a flat rock.
If you’re at home and have access to kitchen equipment, you can shell the acorns and then run them through a grinder. Place the ground acorns in a large crock or glass bowl, and then cover with boiling water, and let stand for an hour, stirring several times. Drain and discard the brownish water. Taste the meal; it should have a bit of a bitter tang but taste sweet as you chew it. Continue leaching out the tannin until the meal is mild-tasting. Press and squeeze the meal in a cloth, removing as much of the water and tannin as possible. Spread the damp meal out to dry, stirring it a few times to get rid of lumps and expose any damp portions. Wet meal will mold quickly, so be sure to dry it thoroughly.
Acorns’ flavors have been likened to chestnuts, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds. They tend to have a slightly bitter initial taste, with a sweet aftertaste.
Fred Demara has decades of survival experience. His books include Guerilla Gardening and Bare-Handed Survival Shelters. This article is excerpted from Eating on the Run.