By: Jamie Weaver
Today I made some wild fruit and nut bars. My goal was to use acorns to make something portable, tasty, and energizing with only wild harvested ingredients.
Acorns are one of my favorite wild foods, largely because I've found them to be one of the most efficient calorie sources. It’s true that acorns require a good deal of processing. The nuts have to be shelled then leached in order to make them edible. But the ease and speed of harvest more than makes up for this. Under a productive oak tree I can fill a 5 gallon bucket with acorns in less than an hour. According to Samuel Thayer, author of Nature's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, this bucket equates to about 8 calorie days of food. In my experience, even after all that cracking and leaching, I am capable of procuring a lot more calories from acorns than if I were to have put my energy into cattails, hazelnuts, burdock root, amaranth, or any number of other wild starch sources.
Nutrition and Uses:
The nutrient value of acorns varies greatly depending on species. One very long article, entitled Acorns in Human Subsistence by Sarah L. R. Mason, shows the nutritional breakdown of over 60 species of acorns. Mason shows that acorns range from 50-90% carbohydrates, 3-11% protein and 1.5-31% fat. Our native Garry oaks fall towards the high end of carbohydrates at 88.8% carbs, 4.3% protein and 4.9% fat.
Acorns are a very versatile food. When leached and ground they can be used as a flour substitute in many recipes from muffins and biscuits to pancakes and pie crusts. However, acorns do not contain gluten so as a flour it doesn’t readily rise and tends to be a bit crumbly. They can also be used to thicken stews, eaten whole or made into porridge. For this project I wanted to make something to substitute for an energy bar that I could take on hikes. I make fruit leather fairly often and it occurred to me that I could use fruit in a similar manner to hold together seeds and nuts in a granola bar of sorts. This account represents attempt number one.
In addition to acorns, I decided to add amaranth to the mix. Amaranth is also known as pigweed and can take over a garden bed with ease. Many a gardener has spent hours pulling out pigweed without ever knowing what they had. Amaranth is actually a sort of super food. It is very high in protein, particularly lysine, one of the amino acids needed in highest quantity and among the most difficult to obtain. This makes amaranth a complete protein. Many of you probably know that protein from plant foods are not generally complete, meaning they do not contain adequate amounts of all the amino acids necessary for proper cell growth, and must be combined with other foods to make a complete protein, like whole wheat bread and peanut butter. Beyond protein, amaranth is also a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, B vitamins, and polyunsaturated fats. Due to this high protein and nutritional value, I thought amaranth would be a good companion to starch filled acorns in a wild energy bar, providing long lasting fuel.
I used blackberries as my glue to hold it all together. They are producing abundantly at present, and of course provide vitamin C and natural sugars, for a more immediate energy boost.
So let’s start from the beginning. The first thing I had to do is leach some acorns. The acorns are just about ready here in northern WA, but I had some Garry oak acorns left over from 2 years ago. Once dried, acorns will last a surprisingly long time. I shelled the nuts by hitting them with a rock and pulling out the meats, then I hot leached them in boiling water. Cold leaching will retain more nutrients and make for a stickier flour if that is your goal, but for this application I planned to leave the nuts whole and hot leaching is much faster. To hot leach you bring the acorns to a boil in at least twice as much water. Boil until the water turns red, this is the tannic acid leaching out. Pour off the water and stick them in a new batch of boiling water, pouring off the tannin rich water until it stays clear. It is important when leaching acorns not to put boiled acorns into cold water. This will cause the tannins to bind, so that they will not leach out. To expedite this process I always have a second pot of boiling water ready when I drain the first. This process took longer than I expected this time around. I am developing a theory that the longer the acorns are stored dry, the more the tannins begin to bind and the longer it takes to leach them. Sort of like how it takes longer to cook dried beans if they are really old.
After they were leached I put them in a dehydrator to dry them then sprinkled them with some sea salt I had dehydrated from a local beach, and roasted them in the oven at 375 for about 15 minutes. To be honest, before roasting I added some raccoon fat that I had rendered and clarified to improve the flavor and add a higher fat content. Acorns can be bland and contain less fat than other nuts. I also likened my conglomeration to Pemmican, a nutritious high-energy food used by indigenous cultures. Pemmican is made of dried meat and rendered fat with the occasional addition of dried berries.
I also roasted the amaranth in the oven for a few minutes. Raw amaranth contains anti-nutritional components that block the absorption of some nutrients.
At some point during this process I went out and picked about 6 cups of blackberries from the thicket around my house. These I put into a blender and pureed them. Once all the ingredients were ready I mixed the whole roasted acorns into the berry mixture then added the roasted amaranth. The proportions were random. My goal was to make more of a granola bar than a fruit leather, so I used a lot of acorns and a fair amount of amaranth. Half of this I spread out on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. The parchment paper keeps the berry goo from sticking to the pan, but doesn’t stick to the berry goo. I once tried to make fruit leather on wax paper…bad idea. The paper stuck to the fruit leather and I spent hours trying to scrape it off.
I wanted to try out some variations so I put the other half of the mixture back into the blender to chop the nuts (the nuts could have been chopped before hand as well, making it easier to control the size). I then spread most of this out on the tray next to the chunkier mixture. I spread it about a half inch thick. As the fruit dries the thickness of the bars will decrease a bit, though not as dramatically as pure fruit leather, so it is best to spread it thicker than you would like the resultant bars to be. With the last bit of pureed fruit and nut mix I formed 2 small patties with my hands to see if they would hold together and not stick to the pan (this is closer to how you would dehydrate them primitively, on a rock by the fire).
The next step was to dry them, so I put the pans in the oven at the lowest setting until they were sufficiently dehydrated. Below 150 degrees is best, but if your oven doesn’t get that low, just keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t burn before they’re dry. I probably dehydrated them for about 4 hours. The nuts were already dry so I just had to wait for the fruit to solidify a bit. The desired consistency is up to you. The drier they are the longer they will keep.
I am satisfied with the results of my little fruit and nut bar experiment. They turned out mildly sweet and nutty, with a crunch. They are surprisingly filling, though a bit crumbly. I like the crunchiness of the larger chunks of acorns, but they do fall apart more than the pureed mixture. I think a higher ratio of fruit to nuts would help. The patties, on the other hand, actually stayed together the best.
I hoped you liked reading about my wild food project. Enjoy experimenting on your own, and if you are interested in learning more, checkout our Hunter-Gatherer course www.ravensroots.com/hunter-gatherer