It’s the first full day of autumn and we’ve just had a hard frost. The last several weeks we’ve been busily squirreling away our garden’s bounty along with wild and domestic nuts. Black walnuts had an OK crop this year but the wild hickories appear to have taken a year’s sabbatical. I think our hazel nut bushes have more than made up for any shortfalls. But getting a nut crop picked (before the squirrels), dried, and into storage is only the first step. It’s getting the nuts out of their shells and onto the table that’s the bigger challenge.
With a well-built nutcracker, or a hammer and anvil, cracking nut shells is not an impossible task. But cracking the shells does not mean that the nut meats will pop out and be ready to use. Although hazel nuts are relatively easy to separate from their shells, black walnuts and hickories are another story. Even if these nuts have been in the shell for a year or longer, most will tenaciously cling to the shell fragments. Automating the cracking process would still leave the picking and sorting, which we find to be by far the most time consuming part of the task. And using a nut pick is more than tedious as it mutilates the nuts as attempts are made to gouge them out. Spending lots of money on an expensive nutcracker will not eliminate these steps. But we have found a couple of tricks to make the task a bit more efficient, both in terms of speed and quality.
Since we only crack nuts as we use them, leaving them in the shells until that time so they will store without going rancid, we’re only cracking a few handfuls of nuts in a sitting, which we do at our kitchen table. Cracking only takes a few minutes. After the nuts are cracked, we put all the broken pieces in an upright can (a small coffee can or canister works well). We then shake the can of nuts from side to side. The jostling motion makes the nuts sort themselves into layers with the small fragments and debris filtering down to the bottom and the largest pieces floating to the top. Now we grab the big pieces out onto the table where we sort out nutmeats and empty shells, but mostly shells that need additional work. Rather than recracking the incompletely shelled pieces, we use small wire cutting snips (the size of a regular pliers) to clip around the shells, releasing the nutmeats without crushing them further with a nutcracker. This trick results in bigger pieces of nuts. Depending on the species, you’ll get used to knowing where the “sweet spots” are to snip away, as well-placed cuts are the key.
Our other nifty trick is in dealing with the small bits left in the bottom of the can. Sieving these to remove the smallest debris for disposal makes visual sorting easier and less messy. We’ve found that a folding, stainless steel steamer insert with 1/8″ diameter holes makes a great sifter, and chances are that most households already have one in their kitchen. The steamer basket can be held partially folded up to cup the nut pieces while it’s shaken side to side. The fine debris (dirt, tiny shell grit, and obliterated nut particles) that sifts out can be disposed of. We burn it with the shells as kindling in the wood stove over the winter. What’s left in the steamer basket gets dumped onto the table for a final sorting. There may be an occasional piece that needs a nut meat removed, but most will already be loose fragments of nuts mixed with shell shards. It’s pretty easy to sort these out by hand, sliding the nuts to one side and the shells to the other.
The only other thing that makes nut cracking a pleasant activity rather than a chore is to share it with someone. Not only will it go faster, but you’ll have quality time for discussion too.
There you have it. That’s it in a nutshell ;>) Now go nuts!