Black walnuts have a richer flavor than the English walnuts more commonly found in grocery stores, and they are an important ingredient in many gourmet baked goods and desserts. Black walnuts are cultivated for their nuts and high quality lumber, and they also grow wild in many parts of North America. Removing the thick husk from a black walnut can be a challenging task, and it requires skills, tools and muscle power.
Black walnuts secrete a substance that produces a dark, sticky stain, so be sure to wear gloves and old clothes. Thin, rubber dish-washing gloves are a good choice, since they allow plenty of freedom of movement and may be disposed of when you are done processing your black walnuts. Black walnuts should be left on the tree to mature, and they will fall to the ground when they are ripe. If you have a specific walnut tree in mind, keep a close eye on it in the fall, since the squirrels may get to the ripe walnuts before you do. Walnuts are best harvested when the husk is still green.
Cracking Open the Husk
For small amounts of black walnuts, you could simply lay them out on a concrete surface and whack each nut with a hammer or step on them with heavy boots to break the husk. Remember to wear safety goggles. Freezing the walnuts first may cause the thick husk to fall off or will at least cause some hairline fracture, into which you can insert a flathead screwdriver to pry off the husk. Larger amounts of nuts require some ingenuity. Lay the black walnuts out on a gravel driveway and drive over them with a car to break the husk, but be careful since the walnuts may shoot out from under the wheel. Discard any nuts that are completely pulverized. Fill a clean cement mixer with black walnuts and a small amount of gravel to break open the husks.
Inside the husk is a shelled walnut, looking much like the whole English walnuts you might see in the store. Remove any husk fragments and rinse the nut inside, discarding any insect-damaged nuts. Do not compost black walnut husks, since they contain a naturally occurring chemical called juglone, which inhibits the growth of many common garden plants. Allow the black walnuts to cure in their shell in a cool, dry place for a few weeks, then store them in a dark location with temperatures around 60 degrees F and a humidity level around 70 percent. Just before using, remove the shell with a nutcracker like you would for English walnuts. If your recipe calls for whole walnuts, you can soak your black walnuts overnight to soften the shell and prevent it from shattering.
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