Hickory nuts are one of the most commonly collected of wild nuts. Hickories grow in upland hardwood forests, sometimes in pure stands. They generally produce in a 3 year cycle, in which one year will be a very heavy crop, the next year a light to moderate crop, and the third year, there will be practically none at all.
The nut meats (the part of the nut that you eat) have a mild pleasant taste. They are dense in nutrients and contain healthy oils and antioxidants.
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There are several members of the hickory family, and many of them produce very tasty edible nuts. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees lists ten different varieties. The most common here in Southern Indiana are the Shagbark and Shellbark.
There are a couple of types that are very bitter and unpalatable. Bitternut and Pignut varieties fall into this category. These kinds always seem so tempting to eat because of their papery thin shells. Thin enough that you can crack them in your hands.
I always thought that if someone could cross a shellbark (one of the largest, and best tasting varieties) with a pignut, and get the best traits of both trees (a large thin shelled, good tasting nut), they would have a marketable nut that would rival the pecan in commercial value.
Hickory nuts ripen in late summer or early fall. When the green husks begin to turn dark brown and split open, the nuts will begin to fall.
If you happen to be under a big hickory tree during this time and a breeze starts to blow, you're likely to get thumped in the head by a falling nut! Collect them as soon as they start falling and break off any remaining husks.
Be on the lookout for small round 1/8" holes in the nuts. Nut weevils lay their eggs in immature nuts in the summer, and the hole is where the grub chewed it's way out. There won't be anything worthwhile left inside any nuts with these holes in them - except maybe another grub. Throw them far away, so you won't pick them up again later.
It's very easy to collect way more nuts than you will ever want to shell out, so keep in mind the work ahead. Picking them up is the easy part.
Before you can enjoy the tender nutmeats inside, you'll have to crack and shell your Hickory nuts. There are many ways to crack them. I use a vise to do the job.
You can buy heavy duty nut crackers designed specifically for very hard nuts like hickories and black walnuts, and they work just fine.
You can also put them on a rock or chunk of concrete and smack them with a hammer (...or another rock). That takes some getting used to but it WILL work. Whatever works best for you is the thing to do, as long as you can get them cracked.
I like to crack a bowl full each day, so I can sit in the evening and pick the nuts out at my leisure while watching the TV or helping my daughter with her homework. A quart sized bowl of cracked nuts is just about enough for one evening and will yield a cup or two of nutmeats.
You will want to get your hands on one of those V-shaped, hinged nut crackers and nut picks to make the job easier. Just be careful not to stab yourself with the pick.
I've done that before, and it's almost always in the finger, and often right under the fingernail - OUCH! Do that a couple of times and you'll be more cautious!
Don't expect to get halves every time you crack a nut - you will be disappointed if you do. Mostly you will get quarters and smaller fragments. You will get a few halves, but it won't be many.
I try to keep the halves separate from the pieces, because we'll chop up the pieces for cooking and baking anyway. I keep the whole halves and bigger pieces for snacking.
Hickory nuts are a versatile and healthy wild food. They are packed with nutrients and healthy oils, and are dense in good calories. They are readily available if you live in their natural range. If you an find some hickory trees, keep an eye on them, and be ready when the nuts begin to fall!!!
How to Use Them
I remember as a kid my parents and I collected hickory nuts by the bucket full on my grandparents farm.
We used them in cakes and brownies. My grandmother made something she called hickory nut candy - kind of like a praline, but not quite. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it! They also make a healthy and tasty snack (better than potato chips).
One of my favorite holiday desserts is hickory nut pie - it's made like pecan pie only WAAAAY better.
They can be substituted in any recipe that calls for pecans or any other kind of nut. Experiment a little...You never know what taste treat you might discover.
All of this is of course assuming that you (and the rest of your family) don't eat them as fast as you can shell them out!
What about all those
How about all of those empty shells that you have left over after picking out all the nutmeats?
Well - don't throw them away if you have a fireplace, wood burning stove, charcoal grill or smoker (or if you know someone who does).
Burning the shells in your fireplace or stove, makes your house smell like...well, like hickory (without the smoke). They are also very dense, so they produce a surprising amount of heat when they burn.
If you have a charcoal grill, throw a handful of shells on the coals about the time you put your burgers on the grill, they will pick up a wonderful hickory smoke flavor.
If you have a smoker, you can use the shells as a substitute for or supplement with hickory wood chips. Either way you can't go wrong.
Preserving the Harvest:
Since hickory nuts are high in oils, they do not keep well at room temperature for more than a couple of weeks. The oils will begin to turn rancid after that.
They will keep for several weeks to a couple of months if they are refrigerated.
The best way to store them for long term use is to freeze them. There's little required to do this.
Pour pre-measured amounts into zipper type freezer bags and squeeze out as much as air as you can. Then just put them in the freezer. They will keep for 2-3 years stored this way.