walnuts

Harvesting Black Walnuts (The Best Way to Gather, Clean, And Cure Them)

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harvesting black walnuts

Black Walnuts are a delicious treat, but unfortunately, harvesting them can be a labor-intensive process. This guide will walk you through the steps of harvesting black walnuts and give you some tips that I’ve learned along the way that will hopefully help you out in the process.

harvesting black walnuts
My spot for harvesting black walnuts
harvesting black walnuts
So many black walnut trees

When Do You Start Harvesting Black Walnuts?

The time for harvesting black walnuts is usually late September and October.  Here in Northeastern Connecticut I usually start to think about harvesting black walnuts around the same time that I gather sweet chestnuts... another amazing fall nut. 

I have a spot that I frequent every year that provides me with as many black walnuts as we could possibly eat, and then some! When deciding which nuts to gather and which ones to leave behind, there are a couple of things I look at that help me decide. 

harvesting black walnuts
A few spots and cracks are ok

Here’s what I look for when harvesting black walnuts. 

  1. The first is the color of the nut’s hull (the outside shell). Look for mostly green husked nuts, and leave any that are completely black where they lay. A few black spots or cracks aren’t bad, but leave the super-soft ones, the ones that ooze a black liquid when you squeeze them. Most 
  2. Next, check whether the black walnuts are ready by pressing your thumb into the hull; if your thumb  easily makes a visible dent in the hull, you’ll know it’s ready. If the hull is super hard and doesn’t give at all under your finger, it might still be too early to harvest them— wait another week or two before collecting your crop!

After harvesting, walnut hulls can turn black and liquify within one to three days. This can affect the flavor of the nutmeat if the liquid from a decomposing hull seeps through the shell and gets into the meat. So you need to remove those hulls quickly!

walnut worms
When you start opening up your walnut husks, you will almost certainly find worms.  But, don’t despair, it’s okay. I’ll reassure you that there will be no maggots in your nuts. They’re from the walnut husk fly and exist entirely outside the shell (and nothing is getting through that thing without special equipment or squirrel teeth). 
harvesting black walnuts

How to Process Black Walnuts

After the fun part of harvesting black walnuts is over, it’s time to start the not-so-fun part of processing.  That means removing the husks and then washing and curing the actual walnut inside. Below is my processing method:

 1) Prepare your area (and yourself) -Prepare to get messy! Put on a pair of heavy duty gloves, fill a 5-gallon bucket halfway up with water, and set it aside. Cover the work area with newspaper or some other covering to protect your clothes from stains caused by black walnut hulls.  I chose to work outside where it doesn’t matter if a mess is made. 

2) Remove the husk -To remove the husk from a walnut, use a sharp paring knife and slice the soft green hull in a single motion. Don’t press too hard—the shell inside is extremely hard and will only dull your knife. If you notice bugs or small worms in the husk, just ignore them: they rarely make their way into the nuts. 

Next, place both hands on the husk and twist in opposite directions. The husks should fall off easily, leaving little bits of husk stuck on the shell. If the husk is too hard to slice through, leave it for a few days to soften up. 

If using a sharp knife doesn’t work, you can try smashing the husk with a hammer on a hard surface. This will crack it and make it easier to peel off the rest of the husk. After breaking the skin, roll the fruit on a firm surface until the majority of the husk loosens. Then peel off as much as you can with your gloved hands.

3) Wash the nuts -When you have husked all the black walnuts, put them in a bucket of water and throw the husks in the trash box. Don’t put them in your compost pile because they contain juglone, which is toxic to plants. To remove any extra bits of husk, vigorously stir the nuts in the water bucket with a broom handle or some other device. Drain the nuts and inspect. If they still have too much husk on them, wash them again. 

4) Do a float test – To tell good nuts from bad, drop a handful of clean nuts into a bucket of water. Any that float are bad: discard them. Stir the bucket well making sure to disturb the nuts, then check again for floaters once they settle. If they’ve sunk to the bottom and none are floating, that means they’re full, good nuts, and you can remove them from the bucket to a different rack to begin drying.

5) Dry and cure them – Spread the walnuts in a wooden or wire mesh tray, and then dry them in the sun for a couple of hours or until the moisture is all gone. Afterward, cure them in a dry place like an onion mesh bag or a wooden box for four to six weeks. This will greatly enhance their flavor, as well as make it easier to remove the nutmeats.

harvesting black walnuts

Why Do Black Walnuts Need To Be Cured?

Why cure nuts? The curing process helps draw out moisture from the nut meats inside the shell. This makes it easier to pick the nut meats out of the shell and improves their flavor!

Storing Cured Walnuts

Shelled walnuts will keep well for about 3 months in the fridge when properly stored in an airtight container. Your best bet, however, is to shell the nuts and freeze them. If you do this, they’ll last a year or more.

Rancid walnuts will often develop a bitter, unpleasant taste, if walnuts develop an off odor or taste, or if mold appears, they should be discarded.

How Long Can Walnuts Stay In the Shell?

Unshelled walnuts stay fresh in the pantry for about 12 months. Of course, it’s not like after that period all the nuts should be discarded. Give them a taste.  If they taste fine just try to use them up as soon as possible. 
walnuts

How to Crack Black Walnuts

Black walnut shells are harder than English walnuts, but you can still crack them with a little effort. In other words, don’t bother trying to use regular nutcrackers.  You will either need a heavy duty black walnut cracker like Grandpa’s Goody Getter, or you’re going to need a little elbow grease. 

If relying on elbow grease, here’s how to get started:

Work On a Firm Surface

I actually do my cracking on a large rock out in my yard. Black walnuts can and will break dishes and plates. Instead, find a large, solid rock that’s mostly flat to use for your walnut breaking surface. If you have a spice grinder, that works too. A molcajete spice grinder made of volcanic stone is usually strong enough to stand up to black walnuts.

Use a Hammer

Hold the walnut between your thumb and forefinger. Place the hammer over the nut, gripping it securely with your other hand (keep your fingers out of the way). With even pressure, hit the walnut 3 to 4 times in the same spot until you hear a slight cracking sound. If you can see where the seam is on your walnut, try to aim for that area–but don’t worry if you can’t find it.

Don’t worry if your walnut isn’t broken. Just rotate it about 1/3 of the way around, then pinch it between your fingers again. Use the hammer to hit the walnut 3 to 4 times until you hear a crack in the new spot, then rotate and hit it again. Keep rotating and using the hammer until parts of the shell fall apart. Depending on the size of the walnut, this could take a full circular rotation.

Prying Out the Nut Meats

Once you crack the shells open, you will be able to see the pale, fleshy nuts inside. Use your fingernails or a nut pick to dig out the nuts and separate them from the shells. This can get hard to do by hand if it is your first time. Don’t give up!

If the shell is giving you trouble, grab a pair of cutting pliers or snips. Cut the shell into little bits so you can carefully scrape them away. In time, you’ll be able to free the nut from its shell. You can find cutting pliers at most hardware stores.

harvesting black walnuts

Conclusion

Overall, black walnuts are truly one of the best types of nuts I’ve gathered. They’re an excellent food source, and one well worth the time investment in harvesting and processing. They are very flavorful and are awesome when cooked into various foods or just enjoyed by the handful! 

As with so many other things, the key to succeeding at harvesting black walnuts is planning ahead and knowing what you are doing. A little research beforehand will help ensure that your harvest goes smoothly.  Hopefully this guide has provided you with the information you need to do just that! You don’t want to miss out on all of the deliciousness these trees have to offer! Perhaps it will even inspire you to gather other types of wild food next fall.

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