Black Walnut: Nut of the Gods

Black Walnut 2
Black walnuts ready to come off of the tree

In Pennsylvania, when the first frost hits and the leaves are really starting to change, it is time to collect Black Walnuts. Black walnuts are particularly abundant in my area of Pennsylvania and are a rich source of wild protein and fat for me. They can be challenging to work with, but between their abundance and their richness, it is well worth the effort to invest some time in these wild nuts.

Juglans nigra is a member of the Walnut family and closely related to Butternuts, English Walnuts and Hickories. The word Juglans is a contraction of Jovis glans, or “Nut of Jupiter” (the Roman God). They prefer open woods and are particularly abundant on moist edges of the forest. They have been historically planted as field borders because they produce a substance called juglone, which is toxic to many plant species, especially other trees. Areas with agricultural history can be good walnut hunting grounds. Their timber is is highly valued for woodworking and as firewood.

The trees are particularly easy to pinpoint in early autumn as they tend to be very first trees to lose their leave, looking like skeletons among the still leafy forest. Mature trees can grow up to 90′ tall and have pinnately compound leaves that are very aromatic when crushed.

I have never observed any mycorrhizal mushrooms around black walnuts, so I speculate that they probably host mostly endomycorrhizal type fungi. I do often find black raspberries under them. Tapping black walnut trees in the spring and reducing the sap to a syrup is also a thing. They are a host to many insects, some quite specific to walnut trees, and squirrels love them. Since the trees own juglone inhibits the growth of new walnut trees within the perimeter of where the walnuts drop, squirrels are the primary method of seed dispersal for these trees, sprouting from forgotten buried nuts. I have found black walnuts buried in my garden, pilfered from the buckets of walnuts I occasionally leave outside. Squirrels will quickly diminish any unattended human caches!

Serious pests of Black Walnuts include ever encroaching human development and removal of trees. The wood and leaves are susceptible to the typical array of fungal pathogens and decayers, some being generalist and some being host specific. The conk Sanghuangporus weirianus  is a host specific polypore that shows itself on Black Walnut. The defoliating ascomycete Cristulariella pyramidalis shows up as target like spots on the underside of leaves and a serious fungal disease, Geosmithia morbida, has turned up in Pennsylvania in recent years and slowly kills trees by causing numerous small cankers that starve the tree of nutrients. The disease is spread by the Tiny Walnut Twig Beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis). Thus far, no cure or control for the disease exists, so the only means of slowing the disease is by not moving walnut wood or products out of affected areas. A quarantine currently exists for much of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Collecting black walnuts is not considered a problem in terms of spreading this disease, but one should be mindful whenever moving forest products from one location to another.


Black Walnut 1.jpg
These nuts are ready to collect right from the ground

To collect black walnuts, one simply has to wait for the walnuts to drop. Some trees have larger nuts than others, so look around and choose wisely. They are encased in a leathery husk that is easily removed by rolling it under foot once the husk turns black. Inside of the husk, there is a deep brown goop that will stain your hands for days (or weeks), similar to henna. These hulls are used to make natural dyes for textiles and fabrics, so wear gloves unless you want dyed hands. I use a stiff brush and a bucket of water to remove the remaining goop, then I air cure the nuts by leaving them in a ventilated area for several day. I prefer to store my nuts in the freezer, although if properly cured and stored in a cool area they should remain fresh for the winter. Because of their high fat content, rancidity is possible.

Nut cracker photo
“Industrial strength” nut cracker used for shelling Black Walnuts

Opening the nuts is another story. I have used a hammer. I have also used a big vice. But I finally made an investment in a serious, heavy duty nutcracker made by a fellow from the Pennsylvania Nut Association. It was not cheap, but I considered it a worthy investment. I have seen similar machines for much less in ag catalogs, but since I have never used them I cannot attest to their quality. The machine I purchased is super sturdy and makes short work of opening nuts. Once open, I gently pick the meat from the shell with a pick. Once drawback of the heavy shell from black walnuts is the tendency to fragment when they are cracked. These fragments are notoriously difficult to see in the pile of nut meat and are quite unappealing when you bite down on one. I have been told to throw the nut meat in cold water and the fragments will float, but I have never had much luck with that method. I find the most reliable method is to turn the nut meat into a small dice by systematically running a large chef knife through the meat in a rocking motion, never allowing the knife blade to totally leave the cutting board. I pass the knife through the pile of nut meat, then turn the knife 90 degrees and run the knife through again. If there is a shell fragment, it is very noticeable when the knife is leveraged away from the cutting board. A couple of passes through the meat with the knife usually reveals any fragments. Alternatively, I turn black walnut meat into nut meal by chopping then pushing through a metal strainer or sieve with a heavy metal spoon. Takes a little work, but the rich nut meal passes through the screening quickly leaving the fragments behind.

The flavor of black walnuts is extremely rich with a tannic, sometimes bitter quality. I enjoy big flavors, so I will eat them straight from the shell. But the real value is in cooking with them. Their deep flavor translates extremely well into baked products. The classic combination is chocolate and black walnuts, i.e. the chocolate chip cookie with black walnuts. These are popular enough that shelled black walnuts are usually available in my local grocery stores during the holidays, at a pretty hefty price. There is a nut company called Hammons Black Walnuts that sells a number of black walnut products. Their products are nice, and expensive. I find a lot more gratification in my final product when I have collected the nuts myself and actually worked them with my own hands, and the “free” price tag is appealing. Black walnuts shine in pestos, romescos and especially cream sauces for pasta. The meal makes great additions in pancakes and muffins. I have read that you can boil the walnuts in water to obtain a black walnut oil, but I have yet to try this.

The recipe that follows is an adaptation of Pennsylvania Dutch Bean Day Bread. The recipe that I started with was published by William Woys Weaver in his very fine book “Dutch Treats”. The bread itself has it’s own very special cultural story, but you will have to purchase Weavers book to read about that. I adapted it to include a wild Pennsylvania element, and the results were superb. I enjoy this bread toasted, with butter and honey. You can double your bean intake by slathering this toasted bread with butter then topping with a white bean puree and fresh herbs. Stale loaves become great tasting croutons.

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Black Bean Bread with Black Walnuts

Yields 1 loaves

  • 2/3 cup dry black beans
  • 3/4 Tbsp grated unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1/2 cup black coffee
  • 1/4 oz dry active yeast
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm milk
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2.5 cups bread flour (approximately)
  • .75 Tbsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup diced black walnut meat
  • 2 tsp dried thyme (replace this with 2 Tbsp of freshly chopped mugwort to make it even more “wild”)

Soak the black beans in 1 quart of salted* water for 12 hours (or overnight). Drain from water and replace with fresh water and salt, bring to a boil and simmer until beans are very tender. Puree the beans with just enough cooking liquid so that you get puree the consistency of a thick gravy (not a paste).

Put this paste in a mixing bowl. Dissolve the grated chocolate in the hot coffee then mix this into the bean puree. Proof the yeast in lukewarm milk. Once the yeast is bubbling, add it to the bean mixture and whisk to create a smooth batter. Add oil then sift in 1.5 cups of the flour. Cover with a damp cloth and allow it to double in bulk.

Once dough has risen and develops bubbles on top, stir down and add the salt, walnut meat, thyme and about 1 cup of flour. Only add enough flour so that the dough no longer sticks to your hands (you will have to adjust the flour up or down based on how wet the bean paste was). Knead for about 5 minutes so that you get a soft and pliant dough, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk.

Knock down, form into a loaf and place in a greased 4″ x 11″ bread pan. Cover and let dough rise to within 1 inch of top. Place bread in the middle of oven preheated to 450F. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce to 400F. Bake for another 15 minutes the reduce heat to 350F and bake for 30 minutes or until bread sounds hollow when tapped. Brush with ice water when you remove from oven, then cool before slicing.

* Soaking and cooking beans in salted water is the correct way to cook dried beans, as the salt is absorbed into the starch and seasons the beans from the inside out. The idea that salt toughens your beans is a fallacy. Using very old beans, not properly soaking and inadequate cooking is the true cause of tough beans.


Author: Luke Smithson

My name is Luke Smithson and I am a lifelong forager. My early foraging came in the form of gathering berries in the woods, hunting and fishing with my folks and experimenting with weeds found in the yard. A chance encounter with Euell Gibbons “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” led me to puff balls, day lilies and crayfish. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. Plants, mushrooms, wild game, shellfish, insects...they all became the subject of my culinary curiosity. Today, I am the President of the New Jersey Mycological Association, an avid experimenter in the garden and a professional chef. But I am also an eager student, striving to learn something new on a daily basis.

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