Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra)

 

post by deninmi

Piles of fallen black walnuts are a common sight in many U.S. states east of the Rockies this time of year: hard, fragrant green orbs midway in size between a golf ball and a tennis ball, that slowly turn yellow and then eventually black, soft, and “mushy” if not taken by squirrels or humans for food. The tall, usually straight-trunked, tree that bears them is common along roadsides, in meadows and woodland margins, and in farm windbreaks and hedgerows. Some populations of black walnuts are alternate bearing, only having a crop every other year, while in other areas, they bear annually.

While black walnuts are a prized food for many, and they are used in various commercially-made food products such as ice cream, candy, and baked goods, many people have never tasted them. Others do not like the distinct, assertive flavor of black walnuts, but most people seem to enjoy them when combined with other flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, or spices. Black walnuts are a good source of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats, and contain decent amounts of Vitamins E, B6, and Magnesium.

 

Another reason why many people have not tasted black walnuts is because they tend to be relatively expensive and difficult to find, although many supermarkets do stock shelled nutmeats in small bags in the baking nut section. Black walnuts are significantly more difficult to process than their Carpathian, a/k/a “English” walnut cousin (Juglans regia). The commercial “English” walnut of commerce grows in a green husk similar to that of the black walnut. However, unlike the black walnut, the English walnut’s husk splits into four equal sections when the nut is fully ripe, and the nut in its shell falls free of the husk. The black walnut, however, remains inside its husk until the husk either rots away on its own, or is removed by humans or animals. And, the black walnut husk contains a potent natural dye that stains everything it contacts a rich, dark brown. Walnut stain takes a week or longer to fade from human skin, and is generally permanent on porous surfaces. In fact, the husks themselves are often used as a source of natural dyes for yarns, fabrics and even woodworking, and depending upon the material being dyed and the process used, the end color can vary from a yellowish-brown to a deep, almost black color.

 

Home processing of black walnuts for food use is a multi-step process, a bit labor intensive, and can be messy, but is ultimately rewarding. The first stage in the process is to remove the outer husk. The most popular method is to lay piles of nuts on a hard surface such as a lawn or gravel driveway (but NOT on your concrete or asphalt drive, unless you want a permanent brown patch in the middle of it), and then run the nuts over with either a tractor or your car (they nuts won’t crack even under the pressure of a heavy vehicle). This cracks the outer husks, and you can then put on a pair of rubber gloves and pick the nuts themselves from the husks. Alternately, some people process small quantities by putting on old shoes and stomping or stepping on the nuts, or pounding the husk with a rubber mallet or other hard object.

Once the nuts have been husked, you can wash them with a garden hose to remove some of the residual flesh of the husk, and then put them into some type of container, such as a plastic crate or mesh bag, which will allow airflow. The nuts must be put into a dry place with good airflow to allow them to fully dry and “cure,” for about two to three months. When they first fall from the tree, the nutmeats still have relatively high moisture content, are opaque white in color, and are somewhat astringent. As they sit in a dry place, the moisture content of the kernel falls, the oil content rises, and the flavor mellows. If the place that you cure the walnuts is too cool or moist, surface mold may form on the nuts – this generally will not harm the nutmeats inside, but may present a minor health hazard for people with mold allergies, so it’s best to watch the nuts and adjust the environmental conditions as the nuts cure to avoid this problem. Finally, it’s also a good idea to stir or rotate the nuts a few times during the curing process, to ensure that all of the nuts dry properly.

 

Shelling is another challenge with black walnuts. The shells are very hard, and can be a challenge to open. Small quantities can be done with a hammer or hand nut cracker, but if you plan on doing any quantity at all, its best to invest in a high quality manual or even electric walnut cracker. This saves a lot of wear and tear on the operator and makes the chore a bit less tiresome. Black Walnut meats are encased in a woody shell even on the interior of the nut, so don’t expect the perfect halves that are typical of English walnuts. Generally, quarters are about the largest piece you will get out, and often even that is hard to achieve. One good note, though, about shelling the nuts – the messy, staining flesh of the husk dries to a black powder during the curing process, and no longer stains the hands or surfaces as long as its kept dry.

To store your black walnut nutmeats, I would first suggest that you lay them out on a cookie sheet or plate and carefully check them for residual bits of shell – the woody shells are extremely hard, and you wouldn’t want someone to break a tooth on your homemade treats. Because they are so nutritious, walnut nutmeats are very attractive to a number of common household pantry pests like Indian meal moths and grain weevils, so I suggest you always store them, tightly wrapped or even sealed into vacuum sealed bags, in the refrigerator or freezer. If properly wrapped and sealed, the nutmeats will stay fresh for about 6 months in a refrigerator, and for at least 3 years in a freezer.

 

I hope that this has inspired you to sample black walnuts for yourself. I have a personal goal this year – in my household, we cracked out 69 pounds of nutmeats from the 2009 crop. I want to beat that total this year. I guess I had better “get cracking” in a month or two, as soon as the nuts are properly cured.

 

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