The Virtues of the Humble Acorn

I love to make simple syrups for my homemade lattes. I've used everything that I grow to experiment with my syrups, some tastier than others. Basil syrup with a cinnamon latte, for example, does not go together. I make it a point to get as much nourishment from my own little corner of the world as I can. When a follower suggested I try making hazelnut syrup for my next flavor, I was intrigued, but quickly realized the inherent problem: 

While I like hazelnuts, I don't grow them. 

To tell you the truth, I don't know if hazelnuts even grow in Kansas. Not wanting to give up immediately, I did remember that I know of a similarly fatty and complex-tasting nut that grows in spades here... the noble and beautiful acorn!

Acorns are fatty, plentiful, and highly overlooked and underrated in the culinary world. Perhaps it's because they're so common? I'm sure I don't have to tell you that acorns can be a nuisance to homeowners with an oak tree. When I googled "acorn syrup recipe" there were only a few sites where you could buy the stuff but not a bit of instruction on how to make it. I tell you now that the call to make it was too delicious to resist.

When I mentioned 'gathering acorns' to my in-laws in a group text they said it was a good idea. I was initially joking but then I ended up spending the afternoon in a local park with one of my wicker baskets on my arm, looking for just the right acorns for my project. A park is a public land, which means it's generally free game for gathering fallen nuts, but if you have an oak tree in your neighbor's yard then I suggest knocking on their door and asking if you may gather a few of them. I'm sure that nobody will mind. 

I realize that the usual format of my blog is to give a brief intro, get to the recipe, and tell a little anecdote, and end with a "I love this recipe because" paragraph. With this exact application, I cannot do that. This is because the preparation of the acorns is most important before you get to make the syrup, the nutmeat purees, or any other yummy things you'd be doing with them. When gathering 'wild' foods, you want to proceed with a reasonable amount of caution. 

First thing's first: If you plan to eat your acorns instead of using them for decoration, only gather whole acorns. Don't gather any acorn that has a hole in its shell, that is cracked, that is open at all. Only gather in tact acorns! Make sure you only gather brown ones that are fully ripe and not soft green ones. The acorns you gather should be the round kind, not the long kind, and should be on the ground, not plucked from the tree. The ones on the ground are generally ripe. When you get home, you're going to want to remove any caps from them. then, you'll fill up a large bowl of water and dump your acorns in. Any of the ones that float you're going to scoop off and use for craft projects instead of eating. I happened to gather some very pretty birch paper while I was foraging and ended up making a pretty fall wreath. 

All you do for this is just grab a foam wreath from any craft store and fire up your hot-glue gun. In just 20 minutes, you'll have a gorgeous wreath. I'm just glad I had some of these cute mini pumpkins lying around to really set it off. I think it looks rather fetching on my door, don't you?

With the acorns that passed the sink or swim test...crack on! That is to say: grab a nutcracker and start cracking open your acorns. I used one of those handheld nutcrackers that you can find at most kitchen stores. If you're worried about long and tedious tasks, this is the one to worry about. I don't think the cracking of the acorns and harvesting of the nut meats took me that long, but I do understand that these sorts of repetitive tasks can be a little mind-numbing for some. I invite you to pull up a funny video or a podcast while you crack on, as it'll make the time go much faster. I sometimes listen to audiobooks during these times, but mostly I enjoy the meditative state of it. 

Crack. Open. Harvest. Discard shell. Repeat. 

There's something nice about being able to turn your mind off and let your hands do all the work. No matter how you get there, though, you're going to end up with a bowl full of acorn nutmeat and acorn shells. These shells make great mulch! I always save mine and put them around the bases of my trees and berry bushes. I'm sure you can make a craft project out of just the shells, but that's another blog.

Next, you're going to find a large container with a lid, probably a large container, and add your nutmeats along with a lot of water. You're going to be leeching out the tannins, which are going to make it NOT so great to eat lest you get rid of it. Tannins are water-soluble, so you can easily get rid of them by using cold water. Word on the street is that you can boil the tannins out, but I also hear that not only does it take hours but there's a chance of locking in bitterness. I think it's worth the wait to just leech out the tannins over a couple of days. All you do is just drain it off and add fresh water to it when the water turns brown. When the water is clear, it's time to roast them! I think mine took 24 hours altogether, and I must have changed the water at least three times during that time. When your water runs clear, your acorns are ready to really get going!

To dry, I simply roasted mine at 300 for about 10 minutes, just to get some color and get the moisture off. I chopped mine up and made a large batch of simple syrup, which was - for me - 2 cups sugar to 3 cups water. I brought it all to a boil, added my nuts, and let it simmer for about 10 minutes before turning off the heat. Don't drain it right away! Let your syrup steep for another 30 minutes or so before draining. This is why I wanted the extra water so it could boil off! If you'd like to correct the consistency of the syrup now, you may do so. 

The result is a gorgeous caramel-esque simple syrup for your coffee. The nuts you've drained off are now candied! You can store candied nuts, submerged in syrup, in a jar for up to six months. I didn't want to do that, so I boiled sugar and butter together until I got a gorgeous caramel and stirred my nuts in to make acorn toffee. 

This is usually the part of the blog where I say "I love this recipe because..." but this isn't one single recipe. Oh, yes, it has a recipe for acorn simple syrup in it, but this - at its heart - is a love letter to acorns and why we should be foraging for our foods more often. This is a great project if you have small children, and the versatility of acorns is limitless. Honestly, you can even make acorn flour!

To do that, simply crack your acorns, grind them in a food processor, sift them out flour with a sifter, and then soak the tannins out. When the water runs clear, roast or bake the flour in the oven until it's dry before processing it one more time. You can store this in an airtight container and treat it like you would most any other nut-based flour. You can also freeze the tannin-leeched nuts, or dry them in a food dehydrator for dry storage. You can treat acorns just like any other delicious nut you would sup, and I highly recommend that you do. Why not even puree the soaked nutmeats and let them hang out in the freezer? A cup or two of acorn puree combined with some potatoes, onions, and stock can make a gorgeous cream of acorn soup!

Finding a deeper connection with your food is a wonderful and beautiful thing. It makes me look at my own plate with reverence, and whenever I sip a latte of my own making, using my acorn syrup, I get to enjoy it knowing that I had something very special to do with how it was made. The flavor of acorns is both mild and complex. I even made a "highlights" node in my Instagram page for them! 

I hope this has inspired you to get outside and try eating acorns for yourself. Thank you so much for spending a tiny piece of your day or night with me. Happy cooking and happy eating!