Fall is black walnut season in North America, and once you come across a tree you’ll find hundreds of the nuts on the ground. You also can knock them from a tree with a stick, but watch your head. They can hurt.
So, why are they called black walnuts? That’s a good question. If you’re ever seen a black walnut, then you know that the outer shell is a deep, light green. But if you handle one, you’ll quickly discover that they stain your hands black. Thus, the name.
Removing the Outer Shell
Wear gloves when harvesting black walnuts, and gently press the green, outer layer. If it’s soft and your finger can make a dent, then it’s at its peak of ripeness.
In order to get to the inner nut, you must remove the green, outer shell. I usually put the walnuts on either a flat rock or my driveway and gently roll them back and forth with my boots. Usually the outer green husk will break off, leaving you with the inner nut. This is when you particularly want to wear gloves, as the inner nut will stain your hands.
Other techniques for removing the outer shell include rolling them between two boards or putting them in a burlap sack and forcefully hitting the bag on a hard surface.
Rinsing the Nuts
Soak black walnuts in water to remove the black, outer bits of pulp. Fill a bucket with cold water and dump the shelled walnuts into the water. If any of them float, discard them. Floating means that the nut has either been compromised by insects or the inner nut meat has dried or is spoiled. Good black walnuts sink. Soak them overnight and in the morning, drain the water and refill. Continue to repeat this cycle of refreshing the water until the water remains clear.
You’ll notice after the first soaking that the water is quite black. Don’t let any of this water get on your clothing; dump the water out of the way, preferably on some black dirt. Black walnuts were used by our ancestors to dye clothing, and any of the black walnut stain that gets on your clothes likely will be permanent.
Drying the Nuts
Once you have sufficiently rinsed the black walnuts, put them on a foil lined baking sheet topped with paper towels and let them dry for two weeks in a dry space. Keep them out of the sun. I’ve found that the garage or basement is a good place to do this. I also found out very quickly that my wife wasn’t fond of staring at a bunch of black walnuts sitting on the kitchen counter for two weeks.
Cracking the Nut
If you think you can use a regular nut cracker to crack a black walnut, think again. These nuts are incredibly tough and have a very hard, outer shell. Supposedly there’s a special black walnut nut-cracker, but for the life of me I haven’t been able to find one. Personally, I use a hammer. I’ll wrap a few nuts with a wash cloth or a piece of burlap and gently smash them with the hammer until they open. You can then pick out the nut-meat and discard the outer shells. The reason you want to wrap them in some kind of fabric when doing this hammer technique is to avoid the shrapnel and shattering that could strike your eyes.
Roasting Black Walnuts
Once you’ve cleaned out the nut meat, you can give your walnuts a light roast. I usually rinse them in cold water and dust them with a finely, ground sea salt. I roast them for about 15 minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit, but taste them after 15 minutes to see if they need more time. I would strongly advise that you do not roast an unopened or un-cracked black walnut.
The moisture in the nut-meat could cause the black walnut to explode and the toughness of its outer shell could send shards flying in all directions. If you feel you must roast them intact, do it in a Dutch oven with a heavy iron lid. That way, any fragments from an exploding black walnut will be contained.
Storing Black Walnuts
If the walnuts have been shelled, the nut-meat is best stored in a container with a tight-fitting lid or a canning jar in the fridge. They should be good for up to a month. If the black walnuts are still in the shell, there’s good news. They’ll keep for up to two years if stored in a burlap bag or fine-meshed bag in a dry space like a back or front porch or an attic. Don’t put them in the root cellar, as the moisture can cause mold to grow on the outer shells. As always, inspect your black walnuts after they’ve been stored. If they show any signs of mold or have a mildew smell, discard them.
Black walnuts are great eaten right out of a bowl like regular walnuts. I like mine roasted and lightly salted and that’s why I toss them in salt before roasting. They’re also great in salads, pressed into cookie dough before baking or as a topping for a freshly baked loaf of bread. I’ve even put them on pizza.
If you come across black walnuts in your neck of the woods, give them a try. It’s a bit of work, but they’re free and they taste really, really great.
How do you crack black walnuts? Share your tips in the section below: