Monday, September 29, 2014

Butternut Harvesting

Butternut tree in late September.  The nuts
have been falling for about 2 weeks
We are fortunate to have a mature Butternut, Juglans cinerea, growing close to our house.  It casts a pleasant amount of shade, not too dense.  Like its close relative the black walnut, Juglans nigra, it does produce juglone, a substance that inhibits the growth of many plants.  Growing alone in a lawn, this has not been a problem with ours.  Our tree does have a moderate case of Butternut Canker or Butternut Decline.  We had the affected branches removed this past spring and this year it looks a lot better.  Long term I expect the disease to continue.

Despite this ailment, out tree does produce quite a few nuts.  This is supported by the large number of seedlings within a hundred feet of the parent.  Normally there are just a few nuts on the ground, but this year there are hundreds of them.  I had been told that the squirrels would swoop in and carry them away, but so far I haven't seen many of them.  Rather than just tripping over these nuts on the lawn I decided to give harvesting them a shot.

Butternuts fresh off the tree are covered with a bright green, sticky husk.  As they age the husk shrinks and becomes darker. The best nuts for harvesting those that have fallen recently.  One site recommended only using nuts freshly shaken off the tree.  My tree is pretty firm and its limbed up quite high, so I just opted for the greenest ones off the ground.

Butternuts are oblong, kind of like a football or rugby ball.  Walnuts are nearly round.

This butternut has been on the ground for a few days.
The husk is stuck more tightly to the shell.

I didn't harvest any of these dark nuts.  There is a greater probability that they may be starting to rot and they are definitely harder to peel. You can check nut quality ahead of time by putting them in a bucket of water.  Those that sink are good, but floaters have voids in them and should be discarded.

Here a relatively fresh, green nut ready for peeling/dehusking.
I found that the serrated edge on my favorite soil knife was very effective at dehusking the butternuts.  Before getting started I put on older clothes and a sturdy pair of gloves.  The husks contain substances that leave dark brown to black stains.  After being exposed to air they get darker.  I didn't want to get any of the juice on me or any of my pavement.

Here's the first cut through the husk.
The green husk is about 3/16" thick and juicy.
The first thing I did was make four cuts lengthwise through the husk with the serrated blade of the knife.

The freshly exposed shell is light brown,
but it darkens quickly when exposed.
Next, I put the blade in one of the slices and twisted the blade causing a chunk of the husk to pop off.  With this opening, I could press the edge of the blade against the cut edge of the husk and the rest of that section of husk peeled off.
Here's a freshly peeled nut with all the pieces of the green husk.

I repeated that for the remaining four segments.  After the first dozen, I could dehusk a nut in less than a minute.  Still, this is not how I would like to spend an afternoon.  A corn sheller can make the job easier.

After 3 minutes the moist interior of the husks had turned black.
This stain can be difficult to remove from surfaces and clothing.

Once peeled the husked nuts get washed with a jet of water then air dried.  Currently I am air curing the nuts in their shells for for about two weeks.  It is recommended to store them in the dark at about 60 F and 70% humidity.  This curing step is supposed to develop a better flavor.

The next step will to take the nuts out of their shells.  One site says to soak them in warm water for a day before cracking the shells.  I did a quick deshelling test with my 3# steel mallet.  A few taps broke the shell nicely.  The nut meat had a greenish cast and tasted a little raw, but there was a richness to it that I hope will dominate when the curing process is complete.

Once shelled the nutmeats can be stored in the refrigerator for a few few months, or longer in the freezer.  I'm not sure how best to use the nuts: raw, boiled or roasted, all three?  I should have a verdict on this process in a couple of weeks.  Being a newbee at this I would really appreciate any comments from more experienced gatherers out there.


Curtis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis said...

After aging the nuts for 2 weeks in a cool dark place, I tried cracking a few. The regular nut cracker was not effective. I ended up cracking them in a bench vise. It cracked the shell, but it was difficult to get the nut meats out.

I waited two more weeks and the shells were easier to crack in the vise. I took some out and used a 3# mallet on them. This was much better, the nut meats were much easier to extract using the hammer method.

The taste is similar to a walnut, but there is a floral or aromatic taste that is unusual. I toasted some in the oven (200 F) and that crisped them up a bit.