Harvesting walnuts is a part of our fall routine most years. We don't have walnut trees yet, but our neighbors have black walnuts and English walnuts. I normally use the black walnuts for their hulls to make black walnut tincture, and use the English walnuts for their nut meats.
Both types of walnuts have a tough green outer hull, but the hulls on English walnuts usually split open and are easy to slip off. Black walnuts require more effort to hull, and their shells are thicker and nut meats smaller. English walnuts have thinner husks and shells, and are easily cracked with a lever style nut cracker. In this post I'll talk about harvesting English walnuts, picking the fresh nuts and drying them for storage in the shell. We'll also cover the best way to store nuts out of the shell.
Note: The maple candied walnut recipe has moved here.
In the fall of 2014, I got a phone call from one of my neighbors – “Would I like walnuts?” (I love my neighbors.) It turns out that other neighbors, relatives of theirs, have two beautiful 89 year old Carpathian walnut trees in their front yard, both of which produced a bumper crop that year. Those trees were sent directly from the Carpathian mountain area all those years ago, at a cost of $1 each, which was big money back then. They came with an apology note about how expensive they were. (I heard this story from the folks who owned the trees as we picked nuts. The farm is still in the same family, and the trees were purchased by the grandfather of the current owner.) We were blessed with many buckets of nuts, enough to share with family and friends. I had to learn how to process walnuts.
Since then, we get called when there are excess nuts. Some years they don't have any to spare, but luckily, walnuts can store a long time in the shell. With what we store from year to year, I haven't had to buy walnuts since 2014.
Harvesting walnuts (in this case, harvesting English walnuts) is simple. We gather the fresh walnuts from the ground as they fall. Because we're gleaning at the neighbor's place, we only pick up fallen nuts. If you were harvesting English walnuts from your own tree, you could go ahead and grab nuts off the lower branches as soon as the green husks start to split open.
Avoiding Bitter Walnuts
Walnut husks are extremely high in tannins, which are bitter in flavor. The longer the hull stays on the walnut, the more bitter the nut inside is likely to be. In the book “The Resilient Gardener”, the author notes how she was able to gather and use nuts in her area that others avoided “because they were too bitter”. By gathering promptly as they fell, hulling immediately and curing, she quickly had a stockpile of free, delicious nuts.
As we sort nuts, we set aside any that have stuck-on blackened hulls, along with undersized nuts and damaged nuts, for animal consumption. (They don't seem to mind the bitter flavor.) Our chickens LOVE walnuts. Moldy nuts are discarded.
Walnut Harvesting Tools
For several years we harvested walnuts by hand, but this year we tried a ball style walnut harvester (similar to the Garden Weasel Medium Nut Gatherer). Holy smokes did that speed up picking! There are similar nut pickers sized for larger nuts, and even powered nut harvesters.
Drying Walnuts for Storage
I was instructed by the tree owners to spread the fresh walnuts out in a warm, dry, shaded place to cure for at least a month before using them. I've seen mixed recommendations online on how long to dry. I suppose it depends a lot on your conditions.
The goal of drying walnuts for storage is to reduce the moisture within the nuts to prevent mold growth. When properly dried, the nuts inside should have a nice “snap” and not be rubbery. At this point, the walnuts should hold for up to three years in the shell in cool, dry conditions. (If you don't eat them all first). So far I've stored my fresh walnuts for over two years at a time with no loss in quality.
Sometimes,I spread my walnuts out on the mesh shelves of my greenhouse to dry. (I did find that the mice got a few of them when I used this option.) Once I have them spread on the shelves, I cover them with burlap to keep out the light.
Because of the mouse risk, I usually dry my walnuts in trays in the finished basement or in the living room. I spread the walnuts out in shallow cardboard boxes, or in my black planting trays that I use for seed starting.
Once the fresh walnuts are dry and cured, I store them in the shell. We keep ours in five gallon or one gallon buckets with lids. (Mice do love walnuts, so make sure any storage container you use is rodent proof.) Gamma lids make it easy to get into the buckets as needed. Store your walnuts in a cool, dry location out of direct sunlight.
Easy to Use Walnut Cracker
For cracking our monster nut harvest, I was lucky enough to find a great deal Reed's Rocket Nut Cracker at the local kitchen store. If you do any serious volume of nut cracking, you need one of these nut crackers. If you have a smaller nut or odd sized nut, like a hazelnut, just fold a bit of dish towel and tuck it in the cracker with the nut to make sure it fits tight enough to crack. (Looking for a black walnut cracker? Try this one instead.)
This cracker saved so much time and so much easier to use than our old “pincer” type cracker. I got one for our neighbors, too. To avoid flying pieces of shell, we covered the cracker with a cloth as we cracked. (I cut up an old, worn bath towel, which we use in place of paper towels in the kitchen.)
The nuts come out neatly, too, often in clean halves instead of bits and pieces. It's rather fun to use, too.
The Best Way to Store Walnuts
As mentioned above, fresh walnuts, properly dried, will keep for three years in the shell. The shell acts as a natural protective barrier. This is how I store most of my walnuts.
Once shelled, the oils in walnuts quickly go rancid. You should either use freshly shelled nuts right away or store them in the refrigerator or freezer for best quality. In the fridge they should keep for six months, in the freezer, safely a year.
You may be thinking, “But they don't store walnuts cold at the store.” Once you've had a chance to compare the taste of freshly shelled versus pre-shelled, you'll know that they probably should. Many stores do turn over product fairly quickly, but store nuts are, in general, not optimally processed and not terribly fresh. It's cost prohibitive.
It's safe to eat raw walnuts, but we usually take the time to make Crispy Walnuts.
What are Crispy Walnuts?
Crispy walnuts are raw walnuts soaked in salt water and then dehydrated until crisp. Soaking and dehydrating removes excess tannins, phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors.
Maybe you've encountered a sore, puckery mouth after eating several walnuts? That's the tannins. Some people also get a “heavy” feeling in their belly after eating nuts. That's the enzyme inhibitors. They're great for keeping the nuts from sprouting too soon, but can make the hard to digest. After the soaking and dehydrating, the walnuts taste almost like roasted walnuts. No more pucker mouth and no more heavy gut.
When we want to get nuts ready for eating, we shell a bunch of nuts and process them into Crispy Nuts ala Nourishing Traditions.
Crispy Walnut Recipe
To make crispy nuts, mix together in a non-reactive bowl:
4 cups walnuts (also works with other nuts)
1 tablespoon sea salt
Enough water to cover
Stir and leave on the counter overnight, or at least 7 hours. Drain well in a colander and dehydrate at 125°F for around 24 hours, depending on how crispy you like them.
Store them in the freezer to prevent rancidity. Don't forget to date and label them. They will keep for months. For even better quality, vacuum seal them.
Walnuts are great as a snack, in granola or hot cereal and for baking. There are number of recipes featuring walnuts on the site (you can view our entire recipe listing here). Some of my favorites are brownies, coconut oil fudge and cranberry walnut pie. Maple candied walnuts are delicious and make a great gift.
What are your favorite ways to use walnuts? Do you have any walnut harvesting tips to share? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Originally published in 2014, updated in 2017.