Like a lot of other people, I have memories of tripping and stepping on ugly, gooey black walnuts in the yard when I was growing up. They were a serious pain when I had to mow the lawn, and I thought they were weird, not food–no way they could actually be related to regular nuts that we eat, right?
As I worked my way through the culinary industry, black walnuts took on a new identity as a treasured, expensive product that was near impossible to source. When I was opening up my first restaurant, I looked at buying them from an exclusive purveyor, and, did a double take when I saw the price tag: over 40$ a lb. Read that again.
The nuts came vacuum sealed, and were incredibly perfumed–more than any nut I’d ever had, and they had a different shape than normal walnuts, but, unlike pictures of other black walnuts, ever single one was a complete, perfect quarter of nutmeat. I never saw another black walnut like it for about 10 years. Luxury goods are catnip to any chef, and, even though I couldn’t stomach buying the individual, vacuum-packed black walnuts, hand-cracked from an old man in Italy from that specific purveyor, I eventually found a cheaper supplier (of only slightly lower quality, but that’s relative here) in Hammonds, now the premier supplier of black walnuts in the United States, who sell them at industrial scale.
This post is all about harvesting your own black walnuts though–everything about them I’ve learned: harvesting, cleaning, storing, cracking, cooking, and everything in between. Why would you harvest your own black walnuts with large scale purveyors in business, you ask? One word: quality. Refer back to the nuts from Great Ciao, the crazy expensive, ultra-perfect ones. Hammonds nuts, while available in bulk, are mechanically separated, and they take a little beating during the process, in flavor, and shape. Simply put: cracking black walnuts by hand is how you get the most intense flavored, perfect-looking nuts possible. Period. You’ll be able to smell the bowl of nuts as you crack them, and pressing them between your fingers will yield a fresh, aromatic oil. You’ll be able to see black walnuts as a luxury, and brag to your friends about your command of a lost art.
Harvesting and removing the green hull
There’s plenty of methods and opinions out there, but after a couple years of harvesting, here’s what I’ve found to be the easiest for me. Once the trees start to drop their nuts, around early October, I wait a bit for the hulls to soften before I gather them. What happens here is that fly larvae will get into the thick green hulls, and begin feeding on them. After a bit, the hulls soften a little. From here, I go outside with a plastic tub, and, wearing gloves and using boots, I rub my heel over each nut, and the once hard green hull simply melts away.
Some nuts may need to be stomped a bit, and that’s fine. Whats happening here, is that I’m allowing the fly larvae (walnut maggots) to digest the hull, soften it, and in the process do a lot of the work of hulling them for me. If you harvest the walnuts green, with the hulls firm, you’ll need to find a way to remove the hull yourself, and you can find plenty of ideas for how to do that online. My advice, is make your peace with creepy crawlies, and employ them to help remove the green hulls for you.
Washing and cleaning
From here, the nuts will still be covered in black goop, and they need to be washed. It’s easy. Fill a big Rubbermaid or plastic container with them, get the hose, and fill the tub with water. Using a stick or some other crude tool, swish the nuts around in the water to help loosen the hull goop the larvae helped you with. Thanks, maggots. Dump the water, then repeat the wash and swish process a couple more times until the water runs clear.
Curing / storing
Once the nuts are drained, set them out in a container to dry in a cool place with ventilation–a porch or garage is fine, as is outside if you don’t have too many squirrels. Do not leave the nuts in water for longer than it takes to wash them, or water will get into them, and they will mold during the curing process. Allow the cleaned nuts to dry and cure for a week or so until they’re completely dry. From here, the nuts are shelf stable, and can last for a few years.
How to harvest and store black walnuts
- Large plastic tub
- Gunny sack or boxes for storing/drying
Harvest the nuts
- Harvest the nuts in late fall, using the heel of your boot to remove the green hull. Pick the nuts up with gloves as they stain.
- Wash the nuts until the water runs clear
- When the nuts are clean, lay them out to dry, without putting them in a large pile, in a ventilated area. A garage works.
- Once the nuts are dried, they can be stored for years for use as a food.
Cracking and equipment
The most difficult part, and why I swore I would never crack my own black walnuts. One taste of a freshly cracked black walnut though, and you’ll be a believer–guaranteed. I didn’t understand the secret until Sam Thayer showed me his process. Black walnut shells are amazingly hard–much harder than English walnuts, and you won’t be cracking these in a rocking chair with Grandpa for Christmas, rather, you and grandpa need to go to the garage and make a little nut cracking set up. Here’s what you’ll need.
Workbench or other firm surface
Cracking surface. I use a molacajete here, and I highly recommend it, since it’s also the greatest spice grinder you’ll ever meet. Since they’re made from basalt/volcanic rock, they’re incredible heavy and hard, and no amount of nut cracking or missed hammer blows will ever do them harm. If you don’t have a molcajete or other firm surface, you can use a vice.
Snips are crucial–indispensable really. Without snips, even with a great hammer technique, you will never get the picture perfect nuts you see in my images here. The snips are used to spot-treat problem shell parts, releasing the perfect quarters. See my video for a hands-on demo.
Nut pick, preferably homemade
Conventional nut picks are obtuse, useless tools for black walnuts and other nuts like butternuts and shagbark hickory. Simply put–they’re just too thick, and all they’re going to do is crush your precious nutmeats. The good part is, it’s easy to make a homemade nutpick. Take a dowel, preferably made from birch so it won’t split, and cut it into lengths a couple inches long.
Now, pound a nail about halfway into the dowel. Next, pound the head of the nail flat using a hammer–this will be your “pick”. Sam Thayer showed me his process of making these, and they’re light years beyond conventional nutpicks. Each pick can be tailored slightly to different nuts too. All things considered tough, a nut pick is really a last resort for me, and, once you get the technique of using the snips down, you can probably get by without them.
How to crack
Here’s what I do. Take each nut, and, holding them by the points or seams, give a good crack to the flat portion of the nut just until you hear it crack–don’t smash them. Now rotate the nut and give them another crack on the seam (top or bottom). With enough practice you should now have a cracked nut, with 4 whole quarters. Put the nuts in a bowl and continue until you have a large bowl of cracked nuts, then go though each of them, using the snips as needed to free the whole quarters.
To me, black walnuts are really the Rolls Royce of nuts, and there’s nothing like a freshly cracked black walnut with it’s unique scent and curious aroma. The flavor is incredibly strong, and keeps throughout cooking in whatever you make, bread, cookies and cakes, or simply sprinkled over granola or yogurt. Black walnuts make everything better. But, once you crack your own, and understand what goes into the process, you’ll probably think twice about chucking handfuls of them into things.
One thing to consider, is how you appreciate the shape of the nut itself. Chefs like to chop, dice, puree, mash, and generally manipulate things. Sometimes this can work out, like in my black walnut honey, but most of the time, especially when I have a freshly cracked batch of nuts, I may not do anything to them at all in the way of chopping or crushing, since I just went through a lot of work to get all those perfect halves. One of the purest ways to enjoy black walnuts is to simply sprinkle them on things, and let them be.
To Toast, or not to toast?
Chefs also love to toast nuts, and, unfortunately I can tell you that, true to chef stereotype, I’ve literally screamed at people for not properly toasting nuts. Here’s the thing though: most nuts in professional kitchens are nut 5 minutes removed from the shell. Once the nuts are shelled, the perfume and aroma is at it’s peak–and they may need no toasting at all, completely contrary to what I drilled into my line cooks for years. As they sit in on a shelf in a box though, the flavor diminishes, and, after, say, a month or two, a gentle toasting will revive them a bit, and I recommend it for nuts that’ve been stored.
Black walnuts are fatty (guess where black walnut oil comes from) and, from there, it follows that plenty of oils, just like the nuts themselves, will deteriorate in flavor over time. Black walnuts are widely known for their tendency to go rancid stored at room temperature (one time someone sent me a 10 lb box of rancid nuts). How do you know if the nuts are rancid? Trust me, if you have a nose, you will know. Always store black walnuts in the fridge after cracking. For long-term storage, vacuum seal them and freeze in usable portions.
Once I started cracking black walnuts from trees in Wisconsin, I noticed that some had yellow streaks. Terrified of the nuts being rancid, I threw plenty of them out. That was a mistake. Referring back to rancid nuts, if your black walnuts are rancid, you will definitely know. As far as I can tell, the yellow streaking is a harmless anomaly (Sam Thayer said it might be related to temperature somehow) but, if you know the science behind yellow streaking in black walnuts, let me know. Rest assured though, I’ve eaten plenty of nuts with yellow streaks, and they’re fine to eat.
Green, unripe walnuts
Black walnuts, and other walnuts, give us a lot more than just nuts and oil. The green, meristematic nuts have long been used for making edible products and things from condiments to preserves and liqours. Green walnuts are outside the scope of this post, but I do harvest plenty of them, typically in June in Minnesota and Wisconsin. You want them about the size of a ping-pong ball, or sometimes smaller, depending on the recipe you’re preparing. If a knife or pin can’t be stuck through the young black walnut, it’s too old, but can still be used to make nocino. Unripe black walnut leaves are also harvested to make different things, most notably black walnut bay sauce, a sort of vinegar infusion.
Leftover black walnut shells
I like to toss the spent nuts outside during the winter as food for wild life. Birds and squirrels will flock to your property to pick tiny pieces of nuts from the shell. If you like to eat squirrels, black walnut shells also make great bait for traps.
Butternuts: the white walnut or juglans cinerea
Butternuts are similar to black walnuts, but also very different, so different that I’ll write about them in a separate post. For our purposes here, know that if you find some butternut trees, you’re lucky, since they suffer from butternut canker, and they’re numbers are dwindling. In Minnesota, they’re listed as an endangered species. The flavor of the nuts is nothing like blackwalnuts. Butternuts are fresh, buttery, and without any sort of tannins like English walnuts. They’re delicious, but far more difficult to find than black walnuts.