By Rita Bober
Aha, fall is here at last. We are finally digging up the last few sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, covering the beets and carrots and harvesting kale, Brussels sprouts and Swiss chard. They are all great vegetables to add to our storage of food for the winter. But ever since Norm and I have become gluten free in our diets, I have been thinking about alternative flours to use. Acorn flour comes to mind. Fall is the time of year to collect acorns. Several years ago, when Norm was studying the Kamana naturalist program, he collected white acorns and made flour out of them. He then made some bread. It was great tasting so perhaps others would be interested in making this product.
There are several different species of Oak native to Michigan. The White Oak group (Quercus alba L.) is the best for collecting and making bread because it has little tannin. However, it produces an abundant crop only every four to ten years. The Chinkapin (Chestnut Oak — Quercus muchlenbergii) and Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) are also native to southern Michigan and it is suggested that their acorns would also be sweet and edible but we haven't tried them.
White Oaks are a classic eastern tree with wide spreading branches and a rounded crown. After a killing frost, the round lobed leaves turn a deep purple-red color. Oaks sink a deep taproot and can live over five hundred years. That is good as it may take fifty years for the White Oak to produce its first crop of acorns. However, the acorns mature in one growing season and are sweet. The acorn meat is high in protein, carbohydrates and fat. The Native Americans of the Great Lakes area call this tree "Mitigomin" — "tree with good seeds." The People did not grow wheat or oats to use as flour for bread. They used what was gifted to them by the great Oak tree.
The Red Oak is part of the Black Oak group. Both grow in southern Michigan. The acorn of the Red Oak take two years to mature. Acorns in this group have so much tannin, it may not be worthwhile to collect them. But if that is the only acorn you can find, there is a way to remove the tannic acid.
First collect your acorns. Make sure to identify the trees from which they come. And thank Creator for this gift of food. In her book, It Will Live Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation, Beverly Ortiz describes the process of preparing acorns according to the Yosemite Miwok/Paiute People. Details of preparation vary from group to group for the various Indian groups around the country. For this group, the most popular Oak to use is the Black Oak. It drops acorns twice, the first group of acorns is mostly unhealthy, worm and insect-infested acorns and they don't pick until the second acorns drop usually in late September or early October. These good acorns are heavier than the others. You will need to inspect each acorn for worm holes and bumps. Leave those for the animals to eat; chipmunks, squirrels, and deer all like to eat acorns. It takes about four pounds of acorns to come up with about four cups of whole, clean acorns.
If they are White Oak, there is little tannic acid and you will hardly have to leach them. But first you must shell the acorns. A fist sized rock or hammer works well. Some suggest boiling the acorns in their shell to help the shelling process. Crush the acorn meats into small pieces. Put the pieces into a pot of already boiling water. Keep the acorns boiling and you will see the water become discolored. When the water is dark brown (about 10 minutes), strain out the acorn meats and switch them to another pot of already boiling water. Continue this process until the nutmeats no longer taste bitter. For White Oak acorns, one or two changes of water will do, but for Red Oak, four or more water changes are best. You can still make sweet tasting acorn bread with acorn meal that still has some bitterness to it. You can experiment with it. When you switch from one pot to another, you need to be sure the water is boiling because cold water seems to lock in the bitterness.
When you have leached the tannin out of the acorn meats, crush them into a meal or mush. The wet meal can be used right away in a bread recipe, or dried and stored as flour is. It will keep for a long time if kept dry. Below is a recipe we used to make a fresh bread:
Mix all dry ingredients together. In separate bowl, mix wet ingredients. Combine. Stir just enough to moisten dry ingredients. Pour into a greased bread pan and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.
Now let me explain how Norm made his flour. After gathering the acorns from a White Oak, he cracked the nuts open and put the meats in chunk-size pieces into a quart jar. He filled the jar with room temperature water and let it sit in a dark place. Each day he checked the jar and he drained and replaced the water about four times. When the water was no longer brown, he put the acorns in our blender and ground them up. Do only a few at a time as it can gum up the machine. After he had all the acorns ground up, he placed them on a cookie sheet, spread out in a thin layer and dried it. He left it sitting out in the house for several days. You can also do this in a slow oven of about 250 degrees checking regularly until completely dry. He then used one cup to make his bread and saved the rest in a quart jar (there was not a full jar left only about half a jar. At the time he made the bread, we used wheat flour but today would try brown rice or amaranth as an alternative.
If you are using the boiling water method of leaching the acorns, you can save the water. It is a tannic acid solution that has a variety of uses. Medicinally it is antiviral and antiseptic. You can use it as a wash for skin ulcers, ringworm and other fungal skin infections and as a cold compress for cuts and burns. Long-term intake of tannins is not healthy and can contribute to constipation and interfering with calcium absorption or cause kidney damage. This tannic acid water can help when tanning animal hides. By soaking the hides in the tannic acid water, the process becomes easier. The jars can be stored in the refrigerator. If mold forms in the jars, it can be re-boiled to kill the mold then stored again. You can also use the tannic acid water as a laundry detergent by putting a couple of cups of the solution in each load of wash; but it is best not to use with white clothes as they will become slightly tan in color. Dan Fisher of the Jack Mountain Bushcraft Guide Service in Maine also relates that tannic water is very effective in eliminating poison ivy rash. How to use it: pour the acorn water into ice cube trays and freeze. When completely frozen, rub the ice on the affected area. Cold helps with inflamed tissues, so using the ice is an ideal way for treating the rash. But be sure to not touch the rash and thus spread it to other areas of the body.
There are no poison look-alikes for acorns so it is a good food for beginners. Using the gift of acorns is a good way to begin living off the land. Give it a try!
Published in the Michigan Land Trust Newsletter, Fall, 2008