Kenneth Kieser: Black walnuts are worthy of harvesting

Kenneth Kieser
Going Outdoors
Start harvesting black walnuts when they look like this.

Fall is one of the most beautiful times when leaves change colors and ground foliage turns to red and gold. Hidden within this magnificent display are thousands of black walnuts, a fact most squirrels are well aware of.  

Years ago, I asked a friend if they planned to use the black walnuts in their yard. He gave me a funny look and asked “for what?” 

“Why, to eat,” I answered.  

“Are you crazy” he said, “those things are poison.” 

So, I picked up enough walnuts to fill up two five-gallon buckets and took them home for processing. That winter they came over for dinner and we had chocolate cake for dessert. The rich chocolate icing had black walnuts mixed in.  

“This cake is delicious,” he said. “I especially like the nuts in your icing.” 

I told him they came from his yard and he all but spit out a mouth full and refused to eat any more.  

The Midwest has thousands of black walnut trees and squirrels. Have you ever been hit on top of your head with a falling black walnut? Not only does it hurt when you wake up, but I have come to the conclusion that squirrels purposely drop black walnuts on humans and likely some woods-dwelling varmints – their version of bombs-away marksmanship and no doubt rodent-spectator entertainment.  

Native black walnut trees are valuable to homeowners as shade to help cool your home in the summer, older trees growing to a height of 50–75 feet with a spread of 50-75 feet at maturity.  

Black walnut trees, too, have some of North America’s most valuable wood, especially for building furniture or even walls at about $10 per board, prices vary. This dark, dense hardwood is prized above most for its beauty and hardness. 

Many harvest black walnuts as a cash crop. Picked nuts may cost $5 per pound and often more. A pickup load is said to bring about $120. Many use the delicious nuts for baking.  

Shelling nuts can be a lot of work. I once watched football games and shelled black walnuts to fill a big antique jar as a Christmas present for my mother. I worked many hours to finish this project she was overjoyed by, and we enjoyed these nuts many times in her cooking.  

My mother always slipped a few black walnuts in icing, apple salad, entrees and other delicious food, creating a treat that generally didn’t last long. Commercial bakers use black walnut meat in candies and deserts. If you don’t believe me, visit Branson, Missouri.  

Black walnut extract was historically used by early settlers and native Americans to treat parasitic worm infections, diphtheria, syphilis, leukemia, gout, rheumatism, glandular disturbances, worms, parasites, athlete's foot, hemorrhoids, laxative, digestion, toothaches, insecticide and for staining clothing or other items used in ceremonies. Some actually applied black walnut extract to their scalp as hair dye – eek!  

Pick only pre-hulled walnuts that feel heavy for their size, as they will dry out in the shell once hulled – or the outside cover is removed. Hulled walnuts preserve well in the shells. We generally wait until October and pick them up off the ground. 

There is a trick to harvesting this messy nut. Wear a pair of thick gloves because the stain is difficult to remove from your hands. Then knock the outside hull off and let the wooden shell dry, some claim for a month.  

Plenty of effort is required when cracking black walnut hulls. Start by wearing safety glasses and gloves. The shells are harder than even the hulls, so a good step is to soak the shells in hot water for 24 hours before attempting shelling. This will soften the shells and make them easy to crack. 

Crack the rock-hard shells with a hammer, but be careful, pieces of hull sometime fly from the hammer strike like a bullet. Such force is necessary. The key to cracking with a hammer is using a lightweight towel to cover the nuts, so bits of nuts don’t fly every direction. Use a throw-away towel, as it will get holes and be ruined. Strike the nut with enough force to break it, but not enough to pulverize the nut, you’ll get the hang of it. 

Once you start shelling, don’t worry about getting perfect whole nuts like English walnuts in grocery stores. Bits and pieces are the norm when picking out black walnut meats. Once the shells are open, use a nut picker for the tasty meat. When the meat comes out damp, lay it on a newspaper or wax paper to dry out. 

Throw away nuts that don’t look right, generally because of insect damage or rot. Lay the nuts out in a single layer and allow them to dry for 2 to 3 weeks. This ensures that the nuts are cured and dried nuts will keep longer. Store unshelled nuts in cloth bags or mesh in a cool, dry location. For longer preservation, shell the nuts and freeze the nutmeats in freezer bags or containers. Shelled, frozen nuts will keep for up to two years. 

Black walnut meat is delicious. Remember to carefully look over the nut meat before using to avoid tiny pieces of walnut hull that can break teeth or cut into your gums. For those who have never tried this succulent gift from nature, try my tips and start by adding some in your chocolate cake icing or a fruit salad.  

You will love it. 

Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at kieserkenneth@gmail.com.