Across central Arizona, at higher elevations (4000’ or higher), are found stands of Emory oaks (Quercus emoryi). Near Superior there is a swath of these oaks that extends from Oak Flat to Globe. They are tall trees – up to 50’ – with a dark fissured bark. The leaves are leathery, often with a few pointy “teeth” along their margins.
The acorns that these trees produce are small – about an inch long and less than a half inch wide. Acorns contain tannins, but some more so than others. In the case of the Emory oak, the acorns are fairly sweet and require little, if any, leaching. For thousands of years, people in this part of the country have collected and eaten Emory oak acorns. You can still see Apache and Tohono O’odham women out collecting these savory nuts this time of year.
Acorn season in the desert is from about mid-July to mid-August, depending on the monsoon rains. It is always best to collect the acorns off the ground before they are deluged with much rain as they may get moldy. Also, acorns are prone to being infested with oak weevil larvae. If you see an acorn with a tiny hole in it, discard it. Even without the hole, you will find a few tiny white grubs as you shell the acorns. There’s a way to mitigate this “worm” problem and I will explain that soon.
If you live near some Emory oaks and would like to collect and eat their acorns, here’s what you need to know:
- Collect the acorns when they start falling off the trees, usually in late July.
- An easy way to collect the acorns is with a rake and sieve. Rake the acorns into a pile, put them in sieve and sift the dirt out. Pretty simple.
- It takes a lot of acorns to make an appreciable amount of flour or ground meal, so gather as many as you can. Take them home and rinse them off and dry them.
- Some people sun-dry the acorns before shelling them. Some people put them in the oven at a very low temperature (“warm”) with the door left open. But I put the clean and dried acorns in the freezer. That is a sure way to kill any weevil larva that could be eating the nut inside the shell.
- So now you need to shell the acorns which means removing the outer shell or “pericarp” to get to the nut. Unless you have a contraption like a “Davebilt hand-turned nut-sheller”, then you are going to have to improvise. I simply take a hammer and crack the shells with a single tap, then peel them open to remove the nut. It’s time consuming, so put some tunes on while you do it. I spent two hours shelling enough acorns to make about three cups of flour.
- Once you’ve removed all of the nuts, you have to figure out how to preserve them. There are many options, but here’s what I do: I put the nuts in a food processor, add two cups of water and then puree them. I put the puree in a large jar, add more water, and then stir up the contents. I put the jar in the ‘fridge overnight so it can settle. The extra water in the jar leaches out tannic acid making the nuts milder, less bitter. The next morning, I place a cheesecloth over a screen that sits in a bowl and pour the water and ground acorns into it. Once the water is strained, you are left with finely ground acorn mush.
- You can either freeze the ball of acorn mush to use in later recipes, or you can completely dry the mush with a food dehydrator. Or you can cook with it immediately.
- Get recipes online and experiment freely.
All acorns are edible if you leach them enough to get out the tannic acid, but the great thing about Emory oak acorns is that they need very little leaching to become mild and tasty.