Black Walnuts

While growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I had elderly next door neighbors who had lived all of their lives in the country. They moved to Louisville to be closer to their children. This couple brought all of their farm ways with them to their urban home. They raised chickens for meat and eggs way before chickens were in vogue. Standard size fruit trees and a vegetable garden was their backyard.

One of their traditions every fall was to bring black walnuts from their farm and hull, crack, and dry the kernels. They accomplished these tasks over a 3 to 4 day period and had special clothes they wore exclusively for the job. Walnut hulls as they soften from a solid green to dark will stain clothes, skin, concrete and anything else they contact.

I remember thinking why would anyone go to all this trouble for such a small amount of nut. That was my thinking until they shared the fudge, brownies, candy and cakes containing black walnut. For me there is no nut with more intense flavor than black walnuts

Black walnut crops vary from year to year, but the 2017 crop is heavy. The tree doesn’t have many quality ornamental traits, but the wood is valuable and much sought after.

The nuts should be hulled immediately after they have been harvested. If the hulls are allowed to remain on for any length of time, the juice in the hull will discolor the nut meats and make them strong tasting. There are various ways and devices to hull walnuts—a cement mixer, corn sheller, or our neighbors choice of running them over with their car. Hulls can also be removed by stomping the nuts under foot or pounding with a hammer. After hulling, thoroughly wash the shells of the nuts to remove hull debris and juices. Small quantities can be washed in a large bucket or tub. At this time, the good nuts can be sorted from the bad ones. Unfilled nuts float while filled nuts sink. (Rubber gloves should be worn when hulling and cleaning to prevent staining of the hands.)

After washing and sorting, allow the nuts to dry for two or three weeks. An excellent way to dry nuts is on a wire screen. Spread the nuts in shallow layers (no more than three nuts deep) and dry them in a cool, dry, well ventilated area. A shed or garage is usually a good place to dry walnuts.

The black walnut has one of the toughest and thickest shells to crack. While nuts can be cracked with a variety of tools, the hammer and nutcracker are most commonly used. The hammer method involves placing the nut, pointed end up, on a hard surface and striking the point until it weakens and splits into sections along its axis. A pair of safety glasses is a good idea. Several nut cracking tools are available. When cracking nuts, shattering of the kernels is often a problem. Shattering can be reduced by soaking the nuts in water for 1 or 2 hours before cracking. The soaking process allows the kernels to absorb enough moisture to become somewhat flexible, resulting in larger kernel pieces. The kernels are extracted from the nutshell with a pick and a pair of pliers.

The oils in walnut kernels will turn rancid if nuts are stored improperly. After the kernels have been removed, place them in a plastic bag and store in the freezer. The nut meats will keep almost indefinitely when stored in the freezer. Kernels can also be stored for short periods in the refrigerator.

Harvesting, hulling, cleaning, and cracking black walnuts requires considerable labor and patience. The rewards are delicious.

Submitted by David Koester, Agent for Horticulture, Boone Co. Cooperative Extension Service