Good to Grow: How to shell black walnuts without going nuts

Something about this blustery autumn day conjured up memories of my aunt and uncle’s backyard. I have many memories there, but today I’m thinking about their walnut tree.

This tree was home to my swing. Nothing fancy, just two pieces of rope and a board, but I spent hours swinging from the limb that stretched across the backyard. To a kid, that tree was huge, and no wonder: Black walnut trees can grow to be 80 feet tall and 40 feet wide.

My other memory of the tree was the green balls that would fall and cover the yard in the autumn months. We would pick them up and toss them into big 5-gallon buckets.

As an adult, I know the next steps, but my memory skips a few steps of the process.

The green hulls need to be removed. I guess my uncle did this with his knife, slicing the hull in half, and then we would join in removing the hull and uncovering the nut. This is messy and will stain your hands and clothes, so be sure to wear rubber gloves and maybe an apron. I remember the messy part, separating and tossing the empty hulls into a pile and the nuts into the bucket.

After removing the hull, you want to clean the nutshells. Fill your bucket with water and swish them around. If any shells rise to the top, toss them because they are empty. You may need to rinse and repeat several times to get all the gunk (official garden term) off and have clean walnuts. Do this out in the yard, not in the driveway — the water could stain your concrete or wood surfaces.

The rinsed nuts need to be dried. Put them in a shallow box or tray with good air circulation and drainage. Remember to protect them from squirrels and such by putting netting on the trays if leaving them outside. You have not worked this hard for them to be taken by sneaky critters with bushy tails. Depending on sunlight and temperatures, this drying process can take 2-4 weeks. My childhood memories are foggy on this step. I was a kid; kids don’t remember the length of time.

After the walnuts have dried, they will keep in their shell for a long time, maybe a year or more, but I am guessing you will be excited to mine for the meat of the nut and use them immediately.

You can crack the shell and eat the nuts before drying, but they will not be like the walnuts you buy in the store. Straight from the tree, they are a bit chewy; give them the time needed to become the tasty treats you are expecting.

We have all seen the fancy nutcrackers — you know, the kind that come to life in the ballet — but that is not what I recommend using to crack your walnuts. The drier the shell, the easier they are to crack. A metal, handheld squeeze nutcracker or hammer will work the best. If using the hammer, be gentle. Stand the walnut up on its end, and tap with the hammer.

When the shell splits into pieces, you finally see the meat of the nut. Dig this out with a small pick and carefully separate the shells and the meat. This is a really important step. Nobody wants a visit to the dentist because they bit down on a piece of shell.

Pulling the meat from the shell can feel like digging for treasure. It is almost a contest to see who can pull out the biggest pieces. Although there is nothing like fresh walnuts, I have an appreciation for the bag of walnut halves I can buy from the market.

Walnuts are a good source of protein and omega 3-fatty acids; in moderation they are heart healthy. I like them tossed on top of my salad or yogurt, but they sure taste good added to brownies or cake. This time of year they are often the nut of spiced nuts or a main ingredient in holiday nut mixes.

After the walnuts are cracked, they will keep in the fridge for about a month, or in the freezer for about three months, but something tells me they will not last that long.