The Man Who Hopes to Turn Acorns into Gold | Civil Eats

The Man Who Hopes to Turn Acorns into Gold

Lincoln Smith is experimenting with growing and baking with the overlooked and humble acorn.

Lincoln Smith with Acorns

Lincoln Smith, Acorn Farmer
In Lincoln Smith’s basement, shiny, solid Red Oak acorns dry in racks stacked up to the ceiling. A bucket of Sawtooth acorns—a failed storage attempt—sit next to his refrigerator, the contents chewed into beehive-esque patterns by weevils.

Storage is just one example of all there is to learn about acorns as a sustainable food source, Smith says.

“Some of the Eastern Native Americans would bury whole bags of acorns in the riverbank,” he says. “It’s kind of amazing that something that was buried in the riverbank for a year could be edible food.”

Because acorns aren’t a commercial crop in the United States, there’s no standardized equipment or processing method. Smith shells, grounds, and leaches the tannins out of the nuts to turn them into acorn flour, which he then bakes into a variety of foods. So far, he has made crackers and cookies and worked with an amateur baker friend to test out recipes for bread.

Smith is the founder of Forested, a 10-acre research garden in Bowie, Maryland. Trained as a landscape architect, he quit his job and broke ground on the project in 2012. The space is inspired by permaculture—a philosophy and design system that integrates landscape design, agriculture, and ecology—and it’s filled with young fruit trees, berries, and mushrooms.

“For me, [acorns] represent an important agroforestry crop,” Smith says. Forested’s combination of original forest and new tree crops—Asian pears, persimmons, hazelnuts—is the very definition of agroforestry, an agricultural practice by which traditional crops are grown alongside other trees.

“I think for agroforestry to have a big impact, it has to be able to compete in production per acre with our tillage crops,” Smith says. Oaks, he says, are a promising start.

Acorns in Jars

Oak trees grow all over the world, are a good source of fat and protein, and, baring pest pressure, can produce hundreds of pounds of nuts each fall. According to Virginia Tech University, some oaks can live for up to 600 years. Plus, as the Native Americans proved, the nuts can be stored for years.

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Smith’s trees aren’t mature yet, but he did glean 1,000 pounds of the nuts from busy streets in the area. And it only took four days. Many of those acorns were from the “hell strip,” the narrow piece of green grass between the sidewalk and the street.

Smith’s plan is to eventually use Forested to generate more information about the trees and nuts, he says. But he and his co-worker Ben Friton aren’t there quite yet; though they are growing mushrooms and raising ducks, oak trees take quite a bit longer to mature. According to the University of Missouri, it can be up to 30 years before an individual oak produces nuts.

And, as wild, undomesticated species, acorn production can be unpredictable. The trees are prone to masting, or producing huge number of nuts one year and few to none the next.

While they’re waiting, there’s plenty to learn about acorn eating. Acorn flour, Smith says, is dense and has no gluten, so it needs at least a 1:1 ratio with wheat flour if it’s going to rise.

Upstairs in his office, Smith has a shelling machine and a grinder he acquired in Korea when he visited the country to learn how Koreans make acorn-based foods. It doesn’t work as well on American acorns, but it works nonetheless. Acorns are separated from their shells, and it’s short work to pick the shards out of the nutmeat. Smith uses a heavy-duty food processor to grind up the nuts, then pours the meal onto a filter suspended over a large plastic bin. Next, he slowly pours buckets of water over the meal to leach out the tannins.

Pre-leaching, the acorn flour initially tastes sweet, almost like maple sugar until the tannins flood in. The aftertaste is disconcertingly bitter, like a coated pill held too long on the tongue. Post-leaching, both the sweet and bitter tastes fade away. But the sweet, nutty taste comes back strongly once the flour is cooked, creating an appealingly hearty flavor.

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Sandwich with Acorn BreadAccording to Smith, the list of acorn products commercially available is short. There are two sisters who make acorn crackers and who had some success with a Kickstarter campaign, but their products aren’t readily available on grocery store shelves. That’s not to say acorns couldn’t be a major source of nutrition in the future, Smith hopes.

It will take time for the research he’s doing at Forested to provide any hard answers about growing and caring for oaks, but Smith hopes it can happen in time to address looming threats to the food system like the ballooning world population and climate change.

In the meantime, there is data to be documented and kitchen experiments to be tasted. At a workshop in Baltimore, Smith demonstrated acorn processing and baked chocolate and molasses acorn cookies. The results are small, dark brown and crumbly, but as far as experiments go, they taste sweet, rich, nutty, and good.

Caroline Selle is a farmer and freelance writer focusing on food and the environment. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Yes Magazine and Orion Magazine, as well as in many other publications. When she's not chasing escaped chickens, she blogs at Read more >

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  1. Dorina Slater
    I have a question, can you eat them raw? My school has acorns all over the ground and nuts are my favorite snack. I have asked many people with different answers so I'd like to know what you think.
  2. Karen Clark
    My ancestors, the Miwoks and Maidus of Northern California used acorns as their main food substance.
    • Aaron Stephens
      I have Shasta tribe ancestry, and have for a long time wanted to try some acorn based foods, but don't trust myself to make them. Do you know of anyone in Northern California that is making acorn based foods according to native traditions.
  3. Rose
    Very inspiring! Glad to see someone looking into the native species in the US. Best of luck to you guys!
  4. Amel
    Do you onl use sawtooth oak acorns?
  5. Heath
    Hi Dorina,
    Yes, acorns can be eaten raw. Whether or not you can stomach them is another matter. Many are so bitter that eating them can be likened to squirting grapefruit seed extract directly into one's mouth.

    I kinda like the experience, chewing slowly to relish the intensity. But as my brother-in-law will tell you, i'm not 'most people.'

    I did once discover a Mossy cup oak with unusually sweet nuts that needed no leaching at all, but it was a freak. Some white oaks have blessed me with nuts that had only a hint of bitter, so whenever i pass those trees i gather a handful to eat along my walk.

    Try the ones at school, and don't stop there! Who knows when you'll find some good ones?
  6. So nice someone is finally using these acorns for real. There is a variety of oak acorn that are sweet, no bitterness at all, it is called Quercus ilex subsp. ballota, grow around mediterranean basin, especially algeria and tunisia.
    Also, I tried with the bitter green oak acorn, I cut them in 4, and boiled them and changed the water 15 times before it reached an acceptable level of bitterness, mixed with wheat flour, I tried bread and cookies, it had a hazelnut flavor, awesome. I believe indians buried them on riverbank to reduce the bitterness.
  7. Hannah Brisson
    I wonder is there a mail order source of the acorn sheller?
  8. We have considerable acreage in oaks and other hardwoods. We are looking into ways to process acorns as a feed source for our cattle. We have never had a problem with acorn poisoning, but feel that processing acorns as a feed source may have economic benefit greater than clearing the acreage of the hardwoods into grass pastures.
    • Angie
      Please be very careful with acorns and livestock, especially equines. Acorns are very high in tannins and iron, both of which can be extremely toxic. The acorn based feed would need to be balanced with other things. But I'm with you, it distresses me to see all the acorns just rotting on the ground. We had a huge acorn year here in Texas and the acorns are like a thick carpet...
  9. Our family has been foraging and cooking with acorns for about 15 years, and it's become such a well-loved food in our kitchen that I published a book on foraging acorns last year (Acorn Foraging: Everything You Need to Know to Harvest One of Autumn’s Best Wild Edible Foods, with Recipes, Photographs and Step-By-Step Instructions).

    We started out doing it with the kids just as a neat homeschool activity in the fall, but acorn flour is so healthy, versatile and tasty that it's become a large part of our diet. Acorns make a great gluten free, paleo flour and they also work phenomenally in things like vegetarian meatballs, dips, spreads, etc. I've brought powdered acorn mini donuts, acorn muffins and acorn spice cakes to our church breakfast, all of which were huge hits. I have several recipes up at our blog and lots of pictures of the processes we use, if anybody is curious about how our family uses acorns. :)
  10. Sara Carlson
    I think like almond flour, this would be fantastic in a dacquiose! I live in Siskiyou County, CA and am surrounded by White Oaks (which are also said to be one of the best for flavor with regards to acorns) sister has a lady showing her how to collect/process the acorns and make/use the flour for baking. Just had a muffin, and was delighted at it's sweetness! This year is a record year for acorns, so we are really blessed!
  11. Narda
    Are you able to commercially produce acorn flour now?

    -Narda Fargotstein
  12. Dom Ramos
    I don't know if he, or you are aware that the Astures tribe of Northern Spain in the Bronze and Iron Ages made acorn bread. This appears to have been quite common amongst the Celto-Iberian tribes of Spain.
  13. Peter Kinasz
    Would slightly crushing the nut and placing the nuts into a pressure cooker with alkaline (limed) liquid neutralize the tannins more quickly?
    Or would the cooking process destroy the nutrients? Perhaps there is a
    cold pressure method that would accomplish the same without affecting the nutritional profile of the acorns? In a similar vein I know
    That cashews are processed in some way to remove toxic urishols.
    Just wondering.....
  14. David Matthews
  15. Jack
    I harvested both red acorns and white acorns this year. i am about to use the first cup in a bread to see how it turns out i washed both kinds (the red acorn was washed for THREE days and still leached tannins and I gave up washing them after that - I do still have a life). dehydrated both kinds of peeled acorns. Tomorrow will be the test to see how they turn out used in bread.
  16. stan kramer
    Hoka Heya! My name is stan kramer and I live 3 miles south of lake of the ozarks. We've been here 34 years on our 43 acres. We have always let our oak trees have as much of our land as possible minus gardens and orchards and vineyards. We regularly walk our woods to harvest mushrooms and wild edibles. We also incorporated wild edibles from other parts of the world . I love our natural environs and feel that all the bad in the world has its seed in greed which divorces men and women from their organic origins. As long as corporatist ideals are in charge I seriously doubt that we'll be to slow this creeping suicide of greed and profit from every living thing. Oak trees may be one of the few living organisms that will survive what's coming in the way of climate warming . peaceout stan (the nobody man)

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