Black walnuts are about as big as tennis balls and have a wonderful citrus aroma. They are reminiscent of their cousin, butternut, but much rounder and larger. Like butternut, they have pinnately compound branches. It’s easy to gather these nuts in quantity. One producing tree can provide enough nuts to keep you busy processing for hours.
I’ll walk you through the steps it takes to process these beauties and extract their uniquely flavored meats.
I like to begin processing the nuts before the husks start oozing black oil everywhere. The small bruises or rotten areas on these husks are no problem at all. The inner nut meat is protected from a hard shell under the husk. The only danger in waiting longer than this is that the process will be messier and the black oil will eventually start seeping through the shell and flavoring the nuts more strongly. Black walnuts are already quite strong, so many people don’t like it when they taste any stronger.
The first step is to remove the husks. In order to do this, they must be smashed. I highly recommend that you find a way to contain the juicy husks so that they don’t explode oil all over your clothes and skin. I’ve experimented with a number of methods for this over the years, and by far the best seems to be placing them in an old dog food bag. The bag helps hold the nuts in place as I smash them with a hammer, and the bag is tough enough so that it doesn’t rip open. It can also be quickly folded up and unfolded as I move through different batches. When I place the nuts in the bag, I make sure to stack them only one row deep, and I try to start at one end and work my way to the other end methodically, so that I can ensure I smash them all before opening the bag. You’ll want to apply a medium force. If you hit them too lightly, you’ll see that the husks don’t split open. If you hit them too hard, you’ll create hairline fractures in the shell that can spoil the meat when the nuts are drying later on. Most people will find that it takes quite a bit of force to break the husks, and that’s okay. Just don’t smash them with all of your strength.
After I break the husks, they can easily be removed by just pulling them apart.
I wear gloves when I process the nuts because the oil from the husks will dye your fingers brown worse than permanent marker. It can take weeks for the stains to disappear.
I lay the nuts in baking sheets, leaving just a small amount of space between each one to allow air flow. I then let the nuts dry in the baking sheets for a week or two at room temperature. Even though this step is not necessary, you’ll find that the nut cracking process is a lot less messy if the nuts are dried.
This is what the nuts will look like after they have dried for a week or two:
Next you have to crack the shells, but this is easier said than done. Normal nutcrackers will break under the stress. Some people lie the nuts on asphalt, lie plywood over them and then drive over the plywood with a car. You can also crack them with a really strong swing of a hammer against a really hard surface, like asphalt or rock. The problem with the car or hammer method is that the shell often breaks into too many pieces, and a lot of the meat flies away or crumbles when you try to extract it. This can also be quite dangerous because the shells are so sharp. I prefer to use an industrial vice (handed down to me from my grandfather who used it when he worked for a telephone company) to crack the shells. Even though this vice is extremely heavy duty, the handle warps a bit after cracking a handful of shells. The nice thing about using a vice is that you can slowly increase pressure until you just crack the shell, and then stop to avoid obliterating it. Often this can result in splitting the shell in two, making nut meat extraction much easier and cleaner than other methods. I always wear safety glasses no matter which method I use because shell fragments can easily take flight, even with the vice method. These fragments are sharp and dangerous, so you definitely don’t want them flying into your eye.
The inside of the shells should look like this when they are healthy and edible:
Occasionally the nuts will be infertile and look like this. These are obviously not edible:
I use a simple nut pick to help extract the meat from the healthy nuts. This meat is delicious in trail mix, cookies, and fudge. I primarily use it for fudge, as the sugar helps to balance the strong flavor. The flavor is not for everyone, and people generally either love it or hate it the first time they try it. I am an exception in the sense that I hated it at first, but it has grown on me over the years, and I now relish it. The meat can go rancid rather quickly at room temperature, so I either keep it in the fridge for up to a week or put it in the freezer for longer. It freezes quite well and will keep for several months, especially in glass containers.
Making maple-black walnut fudge is a Christmas tradition I started many years ago. The two flavors work marvelously together.