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Acorns of many oak species are edible.

They've been used as food in many traditions, but almost all need boiling and/or soaking to leach out the tannins. I'm curious to try them, as nuts, a hot drink, or ground into flour for baking. I'm particularly interested in the European Oak (a.k.a Quercus robur, English or Common Oak) as I have several growing over my garden.

I've found plenty of sources on how to prepare them, but little on how to select them. I assume they should be brown to be ripe, but do I need to get up and pick them as soon as they turn brown, or are fallen ones good? Apart from obvious signs that something has started eating them, is there anything I should beware of?

Update:

Even after discarding the floaters I had to throw away quite a few. they were quickest to shell by quartering them lengthways with a sharp knife. Unroasted ground acorns worked well in place of ground almonds in a biscuit (cookie) recipe, but the coffee substitute has a flavour closer to malty than nutty and isn't great. I may not have roasted the acorns enough, because despite leaching until they weren't bitter, they turned dark brown on drying so I couldn't see how roasted they were.

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  • I looked into this out of curiosity a while back, the picture I saw was that it's possible to do this, but they and up being flavorless at best.
    – GdD
    Sep 16, 2020 at 12:50
  • @GdD my reading suggests a mild nutty flavour, but I'll soon find out. I've got enough to try a few things.
    – Chris H
    Sep 16, 2020 at 12:55
  • Looking at your linked recipe for acorn coffee, the boiling time recommended is not sufficient to remove the tannins. They must be assuming your acorns are already shelled and leached.
    – csk
    Sep 17, 2020 at 18:39
  • @csk I think they are assuming that. I've cold leached them all and now I'm drying them, with a view to roasting tomorrow
    – Chris H
    Sep 17, 2020 at 19:22

2 Answers 2

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While I have never collected acorns to eat, only to feed to animals, I have foraged and served beechnuts and chestnuts, and the same principles apply.

Ripe acorns will fall - so picking them up from under the tree is perfectly fine, no need to climb and risk anything.

As for most nuts, fallen acorns are protected by the outer shell and can withstand being on the ground for a bit. As they need a cold phase to germinate, they will remain mostly unchanged during the autumn, giving you a generous window to go out and forage.

You want to pick large and plump acorns, leave small, cracked, soft or otherwise damaged ones to the wild animals. You should wash them when you bring them home1 or before processing them. This is also a good occasion to sort out the random hollow acorn, because they will float.

Then proceed as per your chosen recipe.

1 If you don’t process them immediately after foraging, make sure they are dry on the surface to prevent mold.

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  • 2
    They're drying in the sun now after a rinse/sort (about 25% floated and were discarded). I plan to peel them and start a cold soak tonight as I may want to make flour as well as roasting some. I expect to accept this answer tomorrow but like to give the whole world a fair chance to reply
    – Chris H
    Sep 16, 2020 at 14:47
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    @ChrisH As a bit of a forager, I didn't know you could do much with acorns beyond feed them to pigs or makes ersatz coffee. So whilst I've nothing to add, I'm looking forward to your update on how this goes!
    – Graham
    Sep 16, 2020 at 22:03
  • @Graham it's a bumper year for them here so worth a try, but shelling them is a pain. Some ideas are here and here. Even after further discarding and eventually giving up I reckon I've got enough to try coffee as well as roasted for snacking, maybe a small amount of flour too. The best method I found for shelling was to quarter them lengthways with a sharp knife but it was still slow
    – Chris H
    Sep 17, 2020 at 7:56
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    I tried them a few years ago. Shelling was a struggle. I soaked them in water for ages but they were terrible. I then boiled them for days (changing the water all the time) and they were still terrible. Hope it goes better for you! Might be there's a trick I missed. Sep 17, 2020 at 9:04
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    @DanielDarabos I've put an update in the question. Soaking a few hundred grams of peeled, quartered (or smaller) acorns in a couple of litres of water, changed several times, removed the bitterness acceptably (but I'm fairly tolerant of slightly bitter flavours, liking strong black coffee). Peeling was a bore though
    – Chris H
    Sep 23, 2020 at 19:55
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The book, "Nature's Garden" by Samuel Thayer, has an excellent, extremely thorough explanation of how to find, select, harvest and prepare acorns.

He lists 9 different types of defective acorns to avoid:

  1. Attached Cup: Ripe acorns loosen from their cups unless they are infected. An acorn with a firmly attached cup indicates that the tree noticed it was infected and prematurely dropped it. Note that a loosely attached cup is fine, as long as it can be easily separated from the nut without using significant force.
  2. Exit hole: an exit hole about the side of a pencil tip indicates that the acorn had a grub in it.
  3. Old acorn: Acorns from the previous autumn are dull brown or gray and have lost any attractive color they may have had.
  4. Dark zone: If part of the shell has a dark area, it usually corresponds with an area of spoiled nut meat inside.
  5. Shell or disk separation: The disk is the round, pale, nearly-flat area underneath the cap. If this area is partially separated from the shell, it indicates the nutmeat is bad. (Think of it like a popped lid on a jar of home-canned produce.)
  6. Rippled bottom: Healthy acorns often have subtle ripples in the shell where it attaches to the disk, but extreme or exaggerated ripples indicate a bad nut.
  7. Dark spot: Tiny dark spots anywhere on the shell but especially on the disk, indicate weevil holes.
  8. Bulging or sunken disk: Healthy acorn disks can be flat, slightly concave or slightly convex. Severely sunken or bulging disks indicate a bad acorn.
  9. Dying sprout: Primarily seen on white oaks. A healthy sprout indicates the acorn is fine, but a dying sprout indicates the acorn is bad.

He also notes that while the float test is useful for finding very bad acorns, it will not find acorns that have been recently infested with grubs, because the grub will not have eaten enough of the acorn to make it float. You can freeze or roast your acorns after the float test. This will kill any grubs, but it will also kill the acorns. Dead acorns go bad quickly, so you must immediately shell and dry acorns after freezing or roasting.

Another tip Thayer provides is oaks will drop their nuts in two batches. The first batch is often made up of unhealthy or infected nuts that the tree wants to get rid of. Collect from the second batch, because it will have fewer bad nuts. In red oaks, the two batches will be a month or two apart. In white oaks, the two batches blend together without an obvious gap, but the odds of finding good nuts are better in the latter half of the season. Of course, if you wait too long you might miss the opportunity to harvest at all, because critters will get all the nuts. If you don't know exactly when to expect the start and end of the acorn season, it's probably better to err on the side of too early.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who wants to harvest acorns. The acorn section is 30 pages long and full of useful tips that will save you a lot of wasted effort.

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  • I'm not sure if the two batches apply to European oak as well, but maybe I'll pick up more later in the season. Unfortunately the book isn't otherwise very applicable this side of the Atlantic and my foraging books are more of the pocket variety
    – Chris H
    Sep 23, 2020 at 19:58
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    European oak (Quercus robur) is a white oak, so it shouldn't have two batches. Red oaks take 18 months to develop their acorns, while white oaks take 6 months. The longer development time in red oaks means the first and second drop are more obviously distinct.
    – csk
    Sep 24, 2020 at 3:32

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