Hickory nut milk (hick milk for short) is the best nut milk I've ever tasted, and, unfortunately for non-foragers, I doubt it will ever be on a store shelf. It's hard to put into words how fascinating it is, and, to be honest, to me, the name nut milk undersells the product, as well as the deep cultural history hidden within it.
Comparing hickory nut milk to something like a carton of almond milk, is like comparing truffles to button mushrooms. They are not the same.
Kanuchi, the Cherokee name for a sort of ball of pounded hickory nut meats and shells the milk is derived from, is probably the best known, ancestral name.
To truly appreciate what it is, and to understand why I'd hype up a glass of brown nut water, kanuchi is a word you need to know. Below is a great video of Cherokee elder Edith Knight making her kanuchi that my friend, Cherokee Chef Niko Albert turned me onto-definitely give it a watch!
A wasi'chu myself, I'm not an expert on the history of Kanuchi by any stretch of the word, but I've made enough of it to describe the process, especially after watching Sam Thayer demonstrate it at a solstice party we had a few years back. Sam also describes the hick milk process in his book Incredible Wild Edibles that I consulted regularly while working on the section of my book on hickory nuts.
At the party, Sam walked up to the house carrying a bootagen-a length of birch trunk, (as I understand it, birch is less prone to splitting than other woods). The log is slowly, painstakingly hollowed out using a progressive fire technique, making it essentially a large mortar and pestle, Sam's pestle was a long stick about the size of a canoe paddle or a boat oar (see below).
Sam cracked some nuts, each one individually to check for any rancid nuts (which can be a real issue with hickory nuts, as I've come to find out) then, in one of the most impressive demonstrations of ancestral food I've seen, proceeded to pound the nuts, shells and all, into a sort of coarse paste in the tree trunk mortar with the sort of force that made the floor of the house shake with each strike of the massive pestle. It was a showstopper, to be sure.
After the nuts and shells are pounded into a mash (I use a Vitamix dry bowl, and it's loud, but it works) they're traditionally made into a ball, which I've heard could be given as a gift.
To prepare the hick milk, the mashed nuts and shells and added to water and simmered for a while, releasing an unmistakable aroma of pure, buttery hickory-pecan-esque goodness into the air.
After simmering is when the magic happens. Once the nut milk has cooked for a bit and has a good flavor, you stir the pot, then stop for a few seconds. Once you stop stirring, the hickory nut shells, being more dense than the nut meats, sink to the bottom, and the resulting, semi-chunky nut milk is ladled off into another dish, or into cups.
Seasoned with a pinch of maple syrup and a dash of cinnamon, it's a nectar of the gods, and, if you're like me, you'll never think of nut milk the same way after your first taste. I mean really, from a practical standpoint, an indigenous non-animal fat source derived from hickory nuts that bypasses the tedious shelling process is pure genius, right?
The second wash
After the nut milk is ladled off of the settled shells at the bottom of the pot, it's ready to go, but you're not done yet. As Sam writes, there's still plenty of delicious hickory nut solutes in the pot that you can harvest by adding some more water, simmering again to make a weaker, but still useful second wash as I call it (a term I would use with my cooks for when we were going to make a remoulage-a stock made from bones that had already been simmered once).
The second nut milk has different properties than the first wash in that it's not thick. The lack of thickness means it's great for using as the base of a soup, or, arguably the best: cooking a pot of real wild rice.
What follows is the beginner version of hickory nut milk I developed and, compared to with other recipes, it will seem like a small batch for the amount of work involved—and it is. Once you get the hang of cracking the nuts and inspecting them for off ones, I’d encourage you to make larger batches.
How to Make Traditional Hickory Nut Milk (Kanuchi)
- 8 ounces 225 g crushed hickory nuts and shells
- 4 ¼ cups 1 L water
- Maple syrup to taste
- Cinnamon a pinch
- Crack each nut individually, inspect for (and discarding) any that smell off, are hollow, or have dark interiors. Take the cracked nuts and put them in a high-speed blender and process into a coarse meal—it will be loud. Add the nut mash to the water and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
- When the pan starts to simmer, a raft of frothy nut cream will form on the top. Virtually all of the shell particles sink, but inevitably some will be caught in the foamy cream, so I like to spoon this off and add it to the “second wash” for extra flavor, and to remove nut shells from the finished milk.
- After you’ve skimmed the foam, let the mixture simmer for another 15 minutes or so, then turn off the heat, wait a few seconds to let the larger shell pieces fall to the bottom, and start ladling off nut milk.
- There’s a real art to ladling off the milk; you want to wait just long enough to let the large shell pieces settle, but not so long all the nut meats go with them.
- Gently swirl the pan a bit, and you’ll get the hang of it. Eventually you’ll need to tilt the pan to continue scooping off nut milk, but don’t try to get it all or you’ll get shell particles.
- Season the finished nut milk with maple syrup to taste and a tiny pinch of cinnamon.
- Save the remaining nut meats and milk to make the second wash—a weaker nut milk that’s perfect for cooking rice or, polenta, or as the base of a soup, since it’s not thick like the first milk. Squirrel soup cooked with nut milk is delicious, and makes me chuckle.
You are grinding the whole hickory nut shell and all.
Yes. Grinding the entire nut bypasses the shelling process, and is traditional.
I've been making and sealing Shagbark Hickory Syrup for 3 years now! My family and friends love it! I bake lots of banana nut bread with the larger nut meats and I am about to try making hick nut butter. I think I will have to try making Kanuchi now too! After the ball is formed, do you have any tips on storing them before making the soup or is freezing them in foil the best way?? Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!!
Lora, you'll want to freeze the nuts. If you haven't looked over Shagbark Hickory Nuts: Harvesting, Cracking and Cooking I go over storing in there. Long story short dried hickory nuts must be frozen as they go rancid faster than other nuts.
Wonderful! Tsi Tsalagi (I am Cherokee). I live in the Pacific Northwest and me and my group are always trying to think of a good substitute in the land of filberts. Do you have any ideas? I am new to your site, but I love the recipes and ideas for foraging. Thank you.
Wado, T. Hmm. I don’t know a real substitute for filberts. I know you have bay nuts there, but they’re tricky to work with.
Would you strain the second wash thru cheesecloth?
Sounds good though, hickory nuts are hard to get at .
You sure can.
I make a hickory nut "tea" that is one of the single best hot beverages I've ever had. Roughly cracked hickory nuts, water, large Dutch oven, woodstove, 24 hours, shells sink, nutmeats float. Makes a dark, rich drink. I am definitely going to try this as the grinding step will take it to the next level and give it that milky quality.
Do you see any reason the process above wouldn't work with American hazelnuts or acorns (after leaching), SHELL and all? I have many producing bushes and trees. This would be a fantastic use for them, in my mind. The little digging I've done has given me no information on the use of the shells except for mulch and compost.
Thanks so much!
That tea sounds really good.
SO glad I found this recipe! I have a whole bucket of Hickory nuts that I was dreading the shelling process.
Any tips for cracking the nuts? My grandfather had the patience to pick out the nut meats, I don't!
Use a Grandpa's Goodie Getter cracker with the hickory nut attachment. I don't crack them myself, I only really make the milk because it's so much easier.
I want to try this but am afraid I’ll bust my blender-those shells are hard! Do you think it would help to boil them a bit first and then grind them? Have you tried that?
Other recipes have mentioned that boiling them first can create a bitter taste. It's probably worth experimenting, though. Maybe there's a balance where you can soften them a little and not get a noticeable amount of bitterness? 🙂
You have very creative spelling and word-conjuring skills.
Sometimes I think people like to comment just to see their words on a screen.