Nov 10, 2014

Shagbark Hickory

By: Lawanda Jungwirth

You’ll have a hard time finding hickory nuts on a grocery store shelf mostly because they are difficult to extract from their shells in large enough pieces to satisfy the picky shopper.  But with a little work and cracking practice, you can harvest bushels of them yourself for free from your favorite shagbark hickory tree.

The easiest way to identify a hickory tree is by its long peels of shaggy bark.  The bark can be seen year round but is most noticeable in winter when the dense canopy of leaves isn’t covering the tree. 

Let’s visit the hickory through the rest of the year.  In spring, you’ll notice the leaf buds unfurling.  On most trees, this isn’t something you’d give any attention to, but the leaf buds on hickories are pretty spectacular.  The large, bright red, pink, orange and green buds open out in a spectacular display that will have you mistakenly thinking the tree is flowering.  Soon after, the leaves change to boring old green, each with five leaflets about five inches long. 

Throughout the summer, you can harvest green wood from young hickory branches to use on the grill to impart a delicious hickory-smoked flavor to fish or meat.

The next time the shagbark hickory will catch your eye is early August.  Large green husks about the size of golf balls appear in groups of two to four and are held slightly above the leaves.  Each husk encloses a hickory nut.  You won’t be the only one noticing the hickory nuts though.  Squirrels and chipmunks are going to try to beat you to the nuts the second they are ready for harvest.  So pay attention - as soon as the first nuts start to fall, you need to be out there collecting them.  By the time they start to fall, some of the husks will have turned a hand-staining brown and will have begun to open slightly at the bottom.  Some of the nuts may break out of the husks on their own.

After collecting the nuts, remove any husks that remain on the nuts.  Discard shriveled or discolored nuts or ones with holes in them.  The holey ones will have a nasty grub surprise inside.

Rinse the nutshells and spread them to dry in the sun for a week or more to cure, somehow protecting them from squirrels.  Good luck with that.

Now the nuts are ready to crack.  There are a lot of YouTube videos on the internet with instructions as well as written directions.  The consensus seems to be that nutcrackers don’t work.  What does work is to hit the nutshell in exactly the right spot with a hammer.  That right spot is on the side of the nut, about 1/3 of the way down from the stem end.  Some people suggest soaking the nuts in hot water for an hour before cracking so that the shells are less likely to fly all over the place when they shatter to be stepped on later by unsuspecting bare feet. Hit the spot with a short, sharp whack and the nut will pop right open with the nutmeats mostly intact.  There is a good photo of the sweet spot on the Mother Earth News website, www.motherearthnews.com.  Type “hickory nut” in the search bar. 

If you don’t care about getting nice looking nutmeats, go ahead and wallop the nut anywhere you want.  The nutmeats will be in smaller pieces and take a little longer to remove from the shells, but if you have the time and patience, good for you. 

Whether or not you master hitting the nut in exactly the right spot, you’ll still need a nut pick to remove the sweet nutmeats from the shells. It’s going to be worth it in the end when you use your foraged hickory nuts in a tasty recipe, or eat them raw or lightly roasted.

Hickory nuts can replace any other nut in your favorite recipes.  They can be mixed into muffins, cakes, cookies, and breads or add a healthy crunch as salad toppers.

To roast hickory nuts on the range-top, spread them in a dry, unoiled pan over medium heat.  Stir until they turn light brown and immediately remove them from the pan so they don’t continue to toast.  For oven roasting, spread the nuts on a cookie sheet and warm them at 200° until they turn light brown.

If you’ve been persistent and have cracked and picked enough nuts so that you have extra, they can be stored in the refrigerator for several months, or in plastic freezer bags in the freezer for a couple years.

But if you’ve lost patience halfway through your cracking or nut-picking project, throw uncracked nuts outside for the squirrels and chipmunks, and put cracked ones in the bird feeder.   The birds will be happy to pick the nutmeats from the shells.

Want to grow more hickory nut trees?  Just plant a hickory nut a few inches deep in the ground in fall.  If you’re saving the nuts for spring planting, keep them in the refrigerator over the winter.  Make sure you plant the nuts exactly where you want the trees to grow though.  Large taproots make them almost impossible to transplant successfully once they start growing.

Hickories are slow growing and don’t produce nuts until they are about 25 years old!  While you are waiting, your hickory will provide shade in summer and turn a beautiful golden color in autumn.

HICKORY NUT BUTTER

Grind nutmeats in a blender, along with enough safflower oil to produce the desired texture.  Add salt to taste.

HICKORY NUT CAKE

Makes two 9-inch round pans

1 1/2 c. sugar

1/2 c. shortening

2 c. sifted all-purpose flour

2 T baking powder

1/2 t. ground nutmeg

1/4 t. salt

1 c. milk

1 c. finely chopped hickory nuts

3 egg whites

Preheat oven to 350°.  Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.  Sift flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt together and set aside.  In a large bowl, cream sugar and shortening until light and fluffy.  Add flour mixture alternately with milk.  Stir in nuts.  In a separate clean bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Quickly but gently fold into the batter.  Divide the batter evenly between two round cake pans.  Bake 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

HICKORY NUT PIE

3 eggs, slightly beaten

3/4 c. sugar

1 c. white corn syrup

1 t. vanilla

2 T. butter or margarine, melted

1 c. chopped hickory nuts

1 unbaked pie shell

Preheat oven to 400°.  Mix eggs, sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and margarine, adding the nuts last.  Pour into pie shell and bake 10 minutes.  Reduce the heat to 350° and bake 40 more minutes.