Yes, hickory nuts are edible and delicious — although hard to crack. In this article, we’ll share a simple and tasty hickory nut recipe that can be made without separating the hickory nut from the shell.
Forest gardening with native trees
We have a number of large trees in our yard and border woods here at Tyrant Farms. As gardeners, we once viewed these trees with scorn since they block light and take nutrients from our annual food crops. However, as we became more adept foragers, we learned to see these native trees in a much different light…
For instance, we used to regard the huge white oak acorns that fall all over our back yard as annoyances. Now, we use our acorns to make delicious, nutritious acorn flour that we eat throughout the year.
Those giant sun-blocking tulip poplars? They’re the primary source of the majority of local honey in our area. Also, their root systems are symbiotically engaged with one of our favorite mushrooms: the tulip morel, which fruits for about one month per year in the early spring.
As it turns out, nearly every tree in our woods not only supports a huge variety of life (above and below ground), they either directly or indirectly provide an abundance of delicious edible food for us as well. Another tree that fits this description: hickories (Carya spp.).
Hickory as an edible nut tree
It just so happens that we have a massive hickory tree that drops nuts the size of golf balls in some of our backyard garden beds. Thankfully, we’ve never been hit, but a few of those falling hickory nuts have smashed squash and melon plants.
At first, we didn’t know quite what to make of our hickory nuts… We’d peel off the thick green/brown husk, and the shell on the inside was thick and rock-hard.
Hickories are very closely related to pecans. In fact, pecans are a species of hickory.
Hickories are more distantly related to walnuts. However, relative to these other two nuts, hickory nuts shells are incredibly hard — and hard to crack open. (*There is some variability in shell hardness between different species of hickories.)
No matter how we’ve tried to crack our hickory nuts, the shells always shatter into small pieces, making the clean extraction of the nutmeat impossible. Normal nut crackers are of no use — a hammer is the only instrument we have that’s strong enough to crack a hickory nut.
What do hickory nuts taste like?
The small hickory nut pieces inside a shattered shell provide a tantalizing taste of the goodness inside… Hickory nuts’ flavor profile is somewhere between a pecan and a black walnut.
(*Note: Not all species of hickory trees make good edible nuts. As their name implies ‘bitternut’ hickories (Carya cordiformis) produce very bitter nuts that are not fit for consumption.)
Making our first hickory nut ambrosia
Enter our friend, Mr. Evan Tishuk into our hickory nut story…
During a spring visit, Evan looked at our hickory tree and exclaimed, “Oh, wow, you have to let me know when your hickories are ripe! I have an old recipe for making a really good drink with hickory nuts.” He called the drink “hickory nut ambrosia.”
Yes, “ambrosia” refers to the go-to drink of the Greek gods. Our interest immediately piqued at Evan’s description. The Tyrant also liked the idea of summoning Zeus to show him a thing or two about being the boss of, well, everything.
With the onset of fall, our hickory nuts began to drop. The Tyrant and I collected some of the early nuts to have a go at making hickory nut ambrosia with some general guidance from Evan.
We’re very glad we did, because hickory nut ambrosia is one incredibly tasty, unique beverage that also happens to be super easy to make. Yes, you use both the hickory nut shell and nutmeat, no separation required!
The Tyrant and I now have yet another delicious treat to look forward to from our forest garden each fall. If you have access to good hickory nuts and a hammer, you will too!
(In case you were wondering, Zeus was a no-show, which we attribute to his fear of The Tyrant.)
Two warnings about hickory nuts
1. Composting hickory nut husks, or not?
Once the inside nut is removed, you can save the green or brown hickory husks for smoking meats or for composting.
There is a bit of a debate in the gardening community as to whether it’s a good idea to add hickory husks to your compost since they contain a small amount of juglone. Juglone is an organic compound (5 hydroxy-1, 4-napthoquinone) that can stunt or kill other plants.
Can you compost hickory nut hulls? While we save our hickory husks for smoked foods, our best guess is it’s perfectly fine to compost them as long as your compost isn’t just a giant pile of hickory nut husks and leaves. The concentration of juglone should be very small in your finished compost and would likely be broken down by microbes during the composting process.
However, Purdue University Extension notes that there are high concentrations of juglone in the nut husks of trees that produce juglone, particularly black walnuts. If you’re worried about juglone in your compost damaging your garden plants, just dump your hickory husks back under your hickory trees rather than putting them in your compost pile.
2. Not all hickory trees are the same.
As mentioned previously, not all hickory trees (or hickory nuts) are created equally.
Certain types of pignut and bitternut hickories are bitter-flavored to the point of inedibility. We’re fortunate to have a very tasty variety of red hickory (Carya Ovalis), growing in our yard.
Here’s a helpful Hickory ID Guide from Vanderbilt University that can help you determine what type of hickory tree you have.
Are any hickory nuts poisonous? No hickory tree species in the US produce nuts poisonous to people. As mentioned above, some hickory subspecies produce nuts that taste bad, but they’re not poisonous.
“Good” hickory trees will produce nuts with have a pecan-black walnut flavor profile.
How to make hickory nut ambrosia
The smell of hickory nut ambrosia as it’s brewing on your stove does indeed seem divine, and the taste is every bit as good as its nose.
Taste tip: After you’ve cooked and sifted your hickory nut ambrosia, it’s especially delicious if the following ingredients are added before serving:
- a bit of whole organic milk (ideally grass-fed), and
- a splash of real maple syrup.
The recipe below is slightly amended from the original version our friend Evan gave us, and you can amend our version of the recipe to your own tastes as you see fit.
Recipe: Hickory nut ambrosia, a warm fall drink
Hickory nut ambrosia, an easy-to-make fall drink
A simple hickory nut recipe you can make without separating the nutmeat from the shell. You'll enjoy this seasonal drink each fall!
- *2 cups crushed hickory nuts & hickory shells husks removed. (you can use however many cups of hickory nuts you want, just make sure to use 3 times as much water relative to the amount of hickories)
- 6 cup Water
- 1 cup organic grass milk
- 4 Tb honey or pure maple syrup or add to taste
Using your hands or a dull knife, separate the outer husk from the inner shell (they should come off easily).
Cut off a square piece of thick cardboard from an old box (2×2 size should be fine), then grab a hammer, and a bowl. Bring these 3 items + your hickory nuts to a flat hard outdoor surface (a concrete driveway is ideal, especially if you want your neighbors to think you’re nuts, pun intended). Place one hickory nut at a time on the cardboard, then fold the cardboard over so that it covers the nut (like a hickory nut cardboard sandwich). Smash each nut into smallish pieces with a hammer (you don’t have to pulverize them, quartered pieces is plenty small). Once you get the hang of doing one nut at a time, you can graduate to doing a few at a time to speed things up.
Place the smashed hickory nut pieces—both the shell and nut pieces together—into your bowl (both the nutmeat and the shell go into your ambrosia). You’ll occasionally get a bad nut that is black inside, so make sure to look at each cracked nut before you add it to your “good nut” bowl. You might even find a small white worm (weevil) that you’ll probably want to remove as well.
Take your bowl of hickory nuts and shell pieces and pour them into a measuring bowl. Whatever the quantity of your hickory nut pieces, you’ll need to have about 3 times more water than nuts in your simmering pot. So if you have 1 cup of hickory pieces, you’ll add 3 cups of water.
Simmer your hickory nuts in a covered pot, stirring vigorously once every 10 minutes or so to help break apart the nuts and unlock more flavor. “Simmering” = a low-medium temperature setting on your stove that brings the mixture to just below boiling. After about 30+ minutes, remove the lid and simmer the hickories for 10-15 more minutes to help the flavors concentrate as the water evaporates. *We’ve removed the lid and simmered them for up to 2 additional hours and have found the ambrosia to be even richer/more flavorful than the 45 minute version. If you have the time, we suggest cooking longer for a more concentrated flavor.
You’ll notice that a lot of the nut pieces will separate from the shell when you’re simmering your hickories. So, once you’re all done simmering your hickories (after 40-45 minutes), skim these little nuggets of goodness off of the surface with a spoon or ladle. Most of the flavor will already be drained out of these hickory nuggets, but they’re still good to add to oatmeal, pumpkin bread, or any number of other recipes. Now, pour your entire pot (hickory nuts, shells, and ambrosia) through a pasta colander, strainer, or cheese cloth.
Before serving, add milk and maple syrup, then stir to incorporate. Or let each person add milk and maple syrup to their cups according to their taste preferences.
We hope you enjoy hickory nut ambrosia with friends or family on a cool fall or winter night!
This is a delightful seasonal recipe that we look forward to each fall and we hope you will too.