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Foraging for Pignuts
Pignut hickory nu are the fruit of the hickory tree, which is in the walnut family. There are over 16 species of hickory tree, and they share some similar characteristics, such as a compound leaf structure, a straight and narrow trunk, an average height of about 100 feet (30.48 m) and relatively large fruit. Follow these guidelines to learn what traits define hickory nuts, which species are edible and how to cure and crack them.
Knowing What to Look For
Look for a woody outer shell, or husk. Hickory nut husks are light green throughout the younger stages of development, then change to a dark brown upon maturity, before falling from the hickory tree.
The texture of a hickory nutshell may be smooth, with minimal veining, or considerably irregular and furrowed.
Husks split open at the base once the fruit (nut) inside has fully ripened, although some species partially encapsulate the hickory nut even after splitting.
Husks vary in thickness from 2 mm to 9 mm, depending on the hickory nut species
Measure the shells with a ruler. When separate from the husk, hickory nuts may measure anywhere between 0.5 inch (13 mm) and 2.56 inches (6.5 cm) long and equally as wide, depending on the species.
Examine the shape. Look for circular, heart-shaped or oblong nuts that are either slightly flat or rounded. Depending on the species, hickory nuts can have any of these shapes.
Taste the nut meat. Several hickory species yield a sweet, edible meat, while others yield bitter meat that one should not eat.
Look for a densely veined inner chamber. The inside of a hickory nut’s shell is veined, which can make it difficult to remove the nut meat.
Learn about different hickory species. The 16 species of hickories each product slightly different nuts. Find out which species live in your area so you’ll know exactly what to look for and you can determine whether the nuts you find are edible.
Why is it so difficult to harvest a Pignut hickory nut?
The shell shape is flat and oblong.
The hickory nut stays locked in its husk even after ripening.
The inside of the shell has a veined texture.
Narrowing It Down By Species
Identify shagbark hickory nuts. You may find these nuts alone, or in a pair. They may be anywhere from 1.2 inches (3 cm) to 2 inches (5 cm) long, and slightly less wide. The brownish-black husk is a medium thickness, and easily splits open to reveal a light brown, heart-shaped, textured and thin-shelled fruit. The kernel of the shagbark is brown and sweet.
Identify southern shagbark hickory nuts. The husk of a southern shagbark is 0.12 inch (3mm) to 0.35 inch (9mm) thick, and the egg-shaped shell is smooth, relatively thin and easy to crack open. Southern shagbark nut meat is a light-brown color, and sweet to the taste.
Identify bitternut hickory nuts. The shell of a bitternut may be anywhere between 0.8 inch (2 cm) to 1.6 inches (4 cm) long. It is a rounded, light-brown nut, enclosed in a thin, yellow-scaled husk. The kernel of the bitternut is bitter, as the name suggests.
Identify pignut hickory nuts. Pignuts generally mature to be about 1 inch (2.5 cm) long and 0.8 inch (2 cm) wide. The husk is thin and dark brown, and must be split manually, as it rarely splits on its own. The pear-shaped pignut shell is thick, smooth and grayish brown. Pignut meat is bitter and slightly bland.
Identify red hickory nuts. This nut measures approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm) to 1.2 inches (3 cm) long and 0.8 inch (2 cm) wide. The dark husk is about 0.08 inch (2 mm) thick and splits freely on its own to reveal a light brown, rounded and thin shell. The meat of the red hickory is small and sweet.
Identify kingnut, or shellbark hickory nuts. This is the largest of the hickory nut species, growing to between 1.8 inches (4.5 cm) and 2.6 inches (6.5 cm) long, and 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide. The oval-shaped shell of the kingnut is very thick, light brown and slightly furrowed. Because the shell is so thick, there is little room for the meat, which is sweet.
Identify sand hickory nuts. This is the smallest of the hickory nuts, averaging between 0.5 inch (13 mm) and 1.45 inches (37 mm) long. The husk is light brown and thin, and splits only partially to reveal the shell, which is oval and slightly flattened, light in color, smooth, furry and relatively thin. The kernel of the sand hickory is sweet.
Identify mockernut hickory nuts. The mockernut is 1 of the larger hickory nut species, growing anywhere between 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) and 2 inches (5 cm) long, and with a thick husk, between 0.12 inch (3 mm) and 0.24 inch (6 mm) thick. The mockernut shell is rectangular in shape, reddish brown and smooth. The meat is edible and sweet, but difficult to remove because of the thickness of the shell.
Make Pignut Flour with a Coffee Grinder
Cracking and Curing Pignut hickory nuts
Break off the husks. Hickory nuts that are ripe will blow off the tree in a brisk wind and land on the ground with the husks already open. After you collect all the nuts you want, remove the husks and discard them.
Check the nuts for nut weevil infestation. Nut weevils bore holes in the shells of hickory nuts and eat the meat inside. If you see small holes in the nuts, you might as well throw them away instead of taking the time to crack them; the meat is sure to be ruined by a grub.
Crack the shells. Most hickory nuts have tough shells that can’t be cracked with a standard nutcracker. You can buy a special cracker used for walnuts, use a vise, or crack them open with a rock. Try not to damage the meat inside.
If you use the rock method, place a nut on a piece of flat concrete, then slam the nut with a wide rock until the shell cracks.
It’s hand to use a nutcracker to finish the job once the shell is partially open.
You can save the shells and burn them along with wood to help a fire last longer.
Pick the nuts. Hand pick shards of shell from the nut meat, so you have a clean bowl of nut halves and pieces. Try to save as much of the meat as you can.
Enjoy the nuts. Hickory nuts can be used the same way as any other type of nut. Snack on them raw, use them in pies and baked goods, or try them roasted and salted. If you’re feeling adventurous, try making hickory nut butter.
Leftover hickory nuts should be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator. They will keep for a few months before rotting.
Or you can freeze the nuts for up to a year. Pack them tightly in freezer-safe containers, removing as much of the air from the containers as possible. Label the containers and store them in the freezer.
Make Pignut Flour with a Coffee Grinder
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