If you are looking for a tasty, calorie-dense wild food, you can’t go wrong with hickory nuts. The sweet, fatty raw meat of a hickory nut can be eaten right out of its hard shell or cooked. The nuts will keep in a cool dry spot for several months, or you can freeze them for later use.
Hickory nuts come from deciduous hardwood trees that are found in North America and Asia. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees lists 10 different varieties of hickory trees. A few varieties produce bitter-tasting nuts, but the shagbark and shellbark trees are known for their good taste.
Our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, famously was nicknamed “Old Hickory” due to his tough nature, although the real-life hickory nuts are easily crack-able. He also had quite a few shagbarks surrounding his home, the Hermitage.
The shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), found in the eastern United States, has a shaggy bark that easily peels away in strips. Other varieties include the pecan (the Carya illinoinensis), the shellbark or kingbark (the Carya laciniosa), the mockernut (the Carya tomentosa), the sand hickory (the Carya palida) and the red hickory (the Carya ovalis).
The shell of the hickory nut is encased in a green or greenish-brown husk that you can easily peel off after the fruit has fallen from the tree. The nuts begin to drop from hickory trees in early fall, and since you will face some stiff competition from squirrels, it is a good idea to gather your supply as soon as possible.
Gather hickory nuts in a bucket or sack, removing the husk as you go. Consider saving the husks for use as mulch in your garden.
At home, sort through your collection, discarding any nuts that have a dry, wrinkled appearance or that have discoloration or holes in their shells. Holes are an indication of insect infestation in the nut.
Shelling the Nuts
There are many ways to crack open the tough hickory shell, ranging from the use of a heavy-duty v-shaped hinged nutcracker to the use of a rock or a hammer. Avoid using a standard lever-type nutcracker, however, because it might crunch the tender nutmeat into fragments. Also, do not use your teeth!
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Before cracking, soak the nuts in warm water for about an hour. This process causes the shell to flex and/or split, making the cracking process easier. The amount of pressure you exert to crack the nut properly will vary, and it may take a while to get your technique down. To prevent shell pieces from flying around, cover the nut with a cloth before hitting it with a hammer or rock.
Use a nut pick to extract the meat from the broken shell. You can save shell fragments for your bird feeder. Birds are good at finding small fragments of meat left on broken shell pieces.
Eating the Nutmeat
You can enjoy hickory nuts fresh from the shell as a satisfying snack. Nine hickory nuts, or about one ounce, provide 186 calories, 3.6g protein, 5.2g carbohydrates, 18.2g fat, 1.8g fiber, as well as traces of magnesium and thiamine.
There are other ways to enjoy the nuts:
Roasting. Spread the nutmeats in a cookie sheet or shallow pan and place them in a 200-degree Fahrenheit oven. Roast the nuts until they are a golden color.
Nut butter. Grind the roasted nutmeats in a blender, along with enough safflower oil and salt to achieve the desired consistency and taste.
Baking. You can substitute hickory nuts for pecans or walnuts in dessert and bread recipes.
Here is a hickory nut pie recipe to try:
- 3 eggs, slightly beaten
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup white Karo syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup hickory nuts, chopped
- 1 unbaked pie shell
Mix the eggs, vanilla, sugar, syrup and butter together. Fold in the nuts. Pour the batter into the pie shell and bake in a 400-degree Fahrenheit oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for 40 more minutes.
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