Processing Black Walnuts  


   I avoided black walnuts for many years, even though I am an ardent forager and they are prolific where I live.  I’d always heard that they were too messy, staining everything they touched with their rich, brown dye, that they were very difficult to crack, tedious, and yielded little for the effort.

    Sometimes I’d find shelled black walnuts at local garage sales, peddled by old-timers who are dedicated nutcrackers and understand the value of this tremendous food source, and continue to keep the tradition alive.  Or I’d see them at the co-op for 15.00$ a pound (roughly 4 cups shelled).  But I never bothered to crack one open and see for myself how “difficult” they were.  How strange, I tell myself, as I’ve been more than willing to tackle acorns, wild roots and other “tedious” and “difficult” kitchen projects!

    Last October I was blessed to find a motherlode of black walnuts in a grassy park, already de-hulled by the riding mower and left to cure in the sun.  I picked up two 5-gallon buckets full of these treasures and determined to figure out how to crack them efficiently, with happy success.  They were far easier to shell than I’d anticipated.

    This year, I didn’t want to take a chance on hopefully finding a similar stash of ready-to-shell walnuts, especially as early September already had walnuts scattering on the ground in many of favorite haunts.  So I set out to de-hull them myself and incorporate black walnuts permanently into my seasonal routine and  store of food.

    What follows here is my current method of processing black walnuts.  I say “current” because there’s always room for modified technique, although the basic goal is to make them less daunting and more do-able. 

     Black walnuts form in thick green hulls that can range from the size of golf balls to tennis balls.  Unlike hickory nuts, which have seams that split open when ripened, releasing the nuts, black walnuts fall sealed inside the hulls and remaining there until the hull rots away.  The hulls decompose rather quickly upon contact with earth and moisture so that often under a walnut tree you find the nuts encased in droppings of black, mushy goo, for want of a better description. 

    I’ve been told the best way to de-hull them is to run over them with a car, which gave me the impression that they are difficult to de-hull.  Not true.  Some people de-hull them with their boots as they are picking them up.  I tried this, but in soft ground it didn’t work well and seemed rather slow to me.

    What I do now is pick them up by the bucketful and bring them home.  I use a hammer out in the driveway and simply give each one a good whack and the hull pops right open.  The fresher green hulls yield a blonde nut, whereas brown or blackened hulls yield a black nut coated in a shoe polish-like substance.  Therefore I wear rubber gloves and old clothes during this stage of the processing to avoid staining. 

    This is by far the most unappetizing part of the process.  Some walnut hulls are infested with the walnut husk maggot and tend to be extra blackened and mushy.  These do not harm the nut but can be really gross to de-hull and wash.  To avoid these, try to be selective when picking them up and just get the fresher-looking green walnuts.  Also try to de-hull as soon as possible. This will help take some of the ‘black’ out of the black walnut and many of your nuts will actually be a very blonde color. 
  It takes about 15-20 minutes to de-hull a 5-gallon bucket of walnuts with the simple hammer method.  A 5-gallon bucket yields about 1 to    1-½ gallons of nuts in the shell, which in turn yields roughly 4-6 cups of finished nuts.

    Do not dispose of the walnut hulls in your compost as they contain a chemical called juglone that is a phyto-toxin, inhibiting plant activity in your garden.

Washing, Drying and Curing the Unshelled Walnuts

    At this point I have a gallon or so of very black, tarry looking walnuts that need to be cured since the freshfall nuts are still unripe and difficult to shell.  I do an extra step of washing them to make them easier to handle.  I put them back in the 5-gallon bucket and rinse them 4 or 5 times with an outdoor hose, being careful where I dump the pitch-black water.  They do not ever seem to get “clean” no matter how many rinsings I give them, so the goal is to just get the worst of it off.

   Now the washed nuts need to be spread out on a tarp or old sheet (one that you don’t care about anymore as it will be badly stained!)  in a sunny place.  They must also be protected from the squirrels, perhaps using a sheet on top as well, until the shells get good and dry.

    Once they are dry, they still need to cure.  If you try to crack them right away the nut meats will not readily come loose from the shells. As the walnuts cure, the nutmeats inside ripen and shrink so that they easily come loose, practically falling out of the shell when it’s shattered.

    Curing the walnuts involves simply storing them away for 6 weeks or longer.  It is important to store them in shallow containers because in a deep container they generate a moist heat that causes mold and imparts a musky, unpleasant flavor to the nuts (possibly a reason some people don’t like black walnuts).

    Once cured properly, the nuts can be stored for long periods of time (I’m hesitant to suggest how long) and they can be shelled at your convenience.


Shelling Black Walnuts

    There are some fancy devices on the market sold specifically for cracking black walnuts, but the truth is a hammer does the trick just fine.  The shells are too hard for an ordinary nutcracker, but shatter easily upon impact.

    I quickly realized that shelling walnuts one-by-one was slow-going, so I developed a technique that I think is about as efficient as it gets.

    I have a cement floor in the basement where I begin by shattering a gallon’s worth with a hammer.  I gather up the pieces: nuts, broken shells and all, and I bring them upstairs to my table.  This takes about 5 minutes.

    At the table, I dump the bucket out into a pile and I begin a sorting process.  I sort empty shells into one pile, and shells that need to have nuts picked out of them back into the bucket. 

    At this point I also have a large pile of nuts, dust, small bits of shell and debris.  I put this pile into a wire mesh sieve or strainer and shake the dust and small bits out of it.  This cleans up the pile substantially so it is easier to sort the nuts from the bits of shell and gives you cleaner nuts.  This step yields more than ¾ of the finished nuts without using a pick.  I then use a nutpick to clean up what’s left in the shells.

Putting your finished nuts into a wire-mesh sieve or strainer cleans up the dust and debris that may be still clinging to them and gives a better end product. 

    The fastest I was able to work last winter yielded about 2 cups of nuts per hour.  I found I enjoyed this step in the processing very much.  It was relaxing and meditative alone, even better with friends.  Four people can average ½ gallon of nuts an hour and some good fellowship to boot.


Salt-brine Processing

    At this point, the walnuts are ready to use and should be stored in the freezer or a cool, dark place to avoid any chance of rancidity after all that work.  But I like to take them one step further.  I learned through the “Nourishing Traditions” circles that nuts are more easily digested and the nutrients more readily absorbed if soaked in a salt brine and then de-hydrated.  Apparently this technique helps to neutralize enzyme inhibitors present in the nuts.  It also enhances them greatly with a wonderful, slightly roasted flavor:

                                  4 cups black walnuts
                                  2 tsp salt
                                  Water to cover
                                  1.  Mix together and leave in a warm place for 8 hours or overnight.
                                  2.  Strain.
                                  3.  Spread on to a cookie sheet or put into a dehydrator.
                                  4.  Dry at 140° for 12 hours or until completely dry and crisp, stirring occasionally.

   Once you’ve tasted these nuts, you’ll be back for more year after year.  Your neighbors will love you.  People are always so happy when I pick up their black walnuts for them!

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