Yes, hickory nuts are edible and delicious — though hard to crack. Here’s a delicious hickory nut recipe that’s easy to make and can be made without separating the hickory nut meat from the shell.
We have a number of large trees in our yard and border woods here at Tyrant Farms. As we continue to learn to look at nature as a beautiful, interconnected grocery store that’s open 24-7, we’re also learning to see 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. 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 — in addition to offering medicinal benefits.
Hickory nut trees
Another tree that provides a wide range of beneficial functions: the hickory.
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 kamikazied several squash and melon plants.)
At first, we didn’t know quite what to make of these nuts… We’d peel off the thick green/brown husk, and the shell on the inside was thick and rock-hard.
Hickories are closely related to pecans and walnuts. However, unlike their close relatives, hickory nuts shells are much harder.
Also, no matter how we tried to crack our hickory nuts, the shells always seemed to shatter into small pieces, making the clean extraction of the nut meat 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 the shattered shells gave us a tantalizing taste of the goodness inside. Hickory nuts’ flavor profile is somewhere between a pecan and a black walnut. (All three are in the Juglandaceae family.)
Enter our friend Mr. Evan Tishuk…
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 read an old recipe for making a really good drink with hickory nuts.” He called the drink “hickory nut ambrosia.”
Making our first 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’s shell and nut meat, no separation required!
The Tyrant and I now have yet another delicious treat to look forward to from our forest garden each fall, and we hope 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
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 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. 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.
Not all hickory trees (or hickory nuts) are created equally.
Certain types of “Pignut” and “Bitternut” hickories are supposed to taste quite unpleasant 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 great Hickory ID Resource from Vanderbilt University that can help you make your hickory tree ID.
Are hickory nuts poisonous? No hickory tree species that we’ve read about in the US produce nuts that are poisonous to people. As mentioned above, some hickory subspecies produce nuts that taste bad.
Good hickory nut varieties will have a walnut/pecan flavor profile.
HICORY NUT AMBROSIA RECIPE
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 grass milk, and
- a splash of honey or 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 for your own tastes as you see fit.
Recipe: How to Make Hickory Nut Ambrosia
- *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
Remove the Hickory Husk - Using your hands or a dull knife, separate the husk from the shell (they should come off easily).
Crack ‘Em - 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, no 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 5 or more 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.
Measure - Take your bowl of hickory nuts and shell pieces and pour them into a measuring bowl. Whatever the quantity of your hickories, 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 - Simmer your hickories 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, not a high-temp setting. 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. The outcome probably just depends on the type of hickory nuts being used and each person’s individual taste preferences, so don’t be afraid to experiment!
Skim and Separate - 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 or cheese cloth.
Serve - Pour your hot hickory ambrosia into cups and add either a tablespoon of honey or maple syrup to each cup (either one is great, but we like the idea of maple tree syrup paired with hickory tree ambrosia). Also, add a shot of grass milk for some extra creaminess and depth.
We hope you enjoy Hickory Nut Ambrosia with friends or family on a cool, fall night or as an early morning coffee substitute!
This is a delightful seasonal recipe that we look forward to each fall. We hope you will too!