Fall is one of the most beautiful times when the leaves change color and the foliage on the ground turns red and gold. Thousands of black walnuts are hidden in this beautiful display, a fact that most squirrels are well aware of.
Years ago, I asked a friend if they were planning on using black walnuts in their garden. He gave me a funny look and asked me “for what?” ”
“Why, to eat,” I replied.
“Are you crazy,” he said, “these things are poison.”
So I picked up enough nuts to fill two five gallon buckets and brought them home to process. That winter they came for dinner and we had chocolate cake for dessert. The rich chocolate frosting had black nuts mixed in.
“This cake is delicious,” he says. “I especially like the nuts in your frosting.”
I told him they were from his yard and he almost spat with his mouth full and refused to eat any more.
The Midwest is home to thousands of black walnut trees and squirrels. Have you ever been hit on the top of your head by a falling black walnut tree? Not only does it hurt when you wake up, but I’ve come to the conclusion that squirrels intentionally drop black nuts on humans and probably woodland vermin – their version of bombshell and undoubtedly a entertainment for rodents and spectators.
Native black walnut trees are valuable to homeowners as a shade to help cool your home in the summer, with older trees reaching heights of 50 to 75 feet with a 50 to 75 foot spread when mature.
Black walnut trees also contain some of North America’s most valuable woods, especially for building furniture or even walls, at around $ 10 per plank, prices vary. This dark, dense hardwood is especially valued for its beauty and toughness.
Many harvest black nuts as a cash crop. Picked nuts can cost $ 5 a pound and often more. A pickup charge would net around $ 120. Many use the delicious nuts for cooking.
Shelling nuts can be a lot of work. I once watched soccer games and shelled black walnuts to fill a large antique jar as a Christmas present for my mom. I worked many hours to complete this project she was thrilled with, and we enjoyed these nuts several times in her kitchen.
My mom always slipped a few black nuts into the icing, apple salad, entrees and other delicious dishes, creating a treat that usually didn’t last long. Commercial bakers use black nut meat in candies and desserts. If you don’t believe me, visit Branson, Missouri.
Black walnut extract has historically been used by early settlers and Native Americans to treat parasitic infections with worms, diphtheria, syphilis, leukemia, gout, rheumatism, glandular disorders, worms, parasites , athlete’s foot, hemorrhoids, laxative, digestion, toothache, insecticide and for coloring clothes or other items used in ceremonies. Some actually applied black walnut extract to their scalp as a hair dye – well!
Choose only pre-shelled nuts that feel heavy for their size, as they will dry out in the shell when shelled – or the outer cover is removed. Shelled walnuts keep well in the shells. We usually wait until October to pick them up from the ground.
There is a trick to harvesting this messy nut. Wear a thick pair of gloves as the stain is difficult to remove from your hands. Then remove the outer shell and let the wooden shell dry, some claim for a month.
A lot of effort is required to break the black walnut hulls. Start by wearing safety glasses and gloves. The shells are even harder than the cockles, so a good step is to soak the shells in hot water for 24 hours before attempting the shelling. This will soften the shells and make them easy to break.
Break rock hard shells with a hammer, but be careful, sometimes pieces of shell will fly off the hammer like a bullet. Such strength is needed. The key to breaking with a hammer is to use a light towel to cover the nuts, so that the nut pieces don’t fly in all directions. Use a disposable towel, as it will be punctured and damaged. Hit the nut with enough force to break it, but not enough to pulverize the nut, you will understand.
Once you start shelling, don’t worry about getting perfect whole nuts like English walnuts at the grocery store. Chunks are the norm when selecting black walnut meats. Once the shells are open, use a nut picker for the flavorful meat. When the meat comes out wet, lay it on newspaper or waxed paper to dry.
Throw out nuts that don’t look good, usually due to insect damage or rot. Arrange the nuts in a single layer and let them dry for 2-3 weeks. This ensures that the nuts are hardened and the dried nuts keep longer. Store unshelled walnuts in cloth or mesh bags in a cool, dry place. For longer storage, shell the nuts and freeze the nuts in freezer bags or containers. Shelled and frozen walnuts can be stored for up to two years.
Black walnut meat is delicious. Remember to look closely at the nut flesh before using it to avoid tiny pieces of the nut shell that can snap your teeth or cut your gums. For those who have never tried this succulent gift of nature, try my tips and start by adding some to your chocolate cake frosting or fruit salad.
You will love it.
Kenneth Kieser, veteran outdoor writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly column on the outdoors for The Examiner. Contact him at [email protected]