Hickory Nut Preparation

Hickory nuts are a great source of food if you know how to prepare them.  The nuts of some species are palatable, while others are bitter and only suitable for animal feed. Shagbark and Shellbark Hickories, along with the Pecan, are regarded by some as the finest nut trees.

A hickory tree can bear a large number of nuts.  One day I got 142 nuts from one tree, and they were falling as I collected.  At another tree I got 71 big ones and my pockets were stuffed so I had to stop.  This makes over 200 big ones in one day.  Some years are better for hickory nuts than others. This one tree that was bearing, supplied at least 50 each day even if I was there the day before.  It's amazing how many nuts a hickory produces in a good year.

Extracting the nut meats from hickory nuts can be difficult.  The Indians made hickory nut milk by pounding the nuts, shell and all, into a paste and then adding water and boiling. It’s a lot easier than trying to extract the nuts themselves.  Some people grill the nuts after soaking them for a few hours, to get a good flavor from the smoke.

"The Creeks store up the last in their towns. I have seen above an hundred bushels of these nuts belonging to one family. They pound them to pieces, and then cast them into boiling water, which, after passing through fine strainers, preserves the most oily part of the liquid; this they call by a name which signifies hiccory milk; it is as sweet and rich as fresh cream, and is an ingredient in most of their cookery, especially homony and corn cakes" (from http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/carya/species/ovata/ovata.htm).

Another source says that hickory nuts were harvested by the early American Indians, who crushed the hickory nuts to get the oil from which many foods were cooked in, such as cornbread and corncakes. William Bartram documented in 1773 that he saw 100 bushels of shagbark hickory nuts that were stored at just a single Indian family home. The hickory nuts were pounded into a mash, and then boiled in water, where a white, oily liquid separated, called 'hickory milk.' The liquid was described to be as sweet and rich as a fresh cream and was an active ingredient used by the Indians in cooking corn bread and hominy grits. … Many such productive hickory groves occur along tidal creeks in Coastal Georgia, a few are left intact by land developers for the recreational value of the trees and the food value of the hickory nuts that are gathered at one such Episcopal camp near Brunswick, Georgia along a tidal basin aquifer 'Honeycreek,' a tributary of the Satilla River.  (http://www.tytyga.com/publication/America%27s+Historical+Hickory+Trees)

Making Hickory Nut Milk; Extracting Nuts

Here is my hickory nut milk recipe.  Even if some of the nuts are bitter or slightly rancid, this method may help to make them palatable.

Take some hickory nuts, and put them in water.  Throw away the ones that float.

Rinse the rest.  Put about 30 nuts (if they are large) in the oven at 350 or higher for 10-15 minutes or until the shells begin to crack.  Let them cool.  Another alternative is to wait until after the nuts are cracked into small pieces to toast them.  A posting on eBay suggests "IF YOU BOIL THEM FOR ABOUT 20 MINUTES, AND COOL THEY ARE EASIER TO CRACK."

Cracking the Nuts

Put the nuts in a nutcracker on top of a brick or rock, and break them in pieces by repeated blows with a hammer.  Try to make the pieces as small as possible; you may have to hit the nut many times with the hammer and grip it tightly with the nutcracker to make the pieces small. Hit the nut with a hammer, not too hard, again and again until the shell begins to crack.  Then hit it once very hard and it will crack into many pieces, and they will tend not to fly away.  Because the rock is under the nut, the hammer is on top, and the nut cracker is around it, the pieces of nut and shell have nowhere to go and stay together.  This method is also very easy and does not require much energy. 

You may want to take the largest few pieces of the shell, turn them shell side up, and put a cloth over them and hit them once or twice with a hammer to break them further.  This method is not too hard on the cloth and helps to make the pieces smaller.

A heavy metal mallet (a sledgehammer) works even better and faster than a hammer.  Just a few hits will break the nut into small pieces.  Make the first hit lighter than the others, to crack the nut and avoid damaging the rock underneath. As before, hit the nut again and again, not too hard, until the shell begins to crack.  Then hit it once very hard and it will crack into many pieces, and they will tend not to fly away. 

You may also want to try using a vise to crack the hickory nuts.

Look at the quality of the nut meat after cracking the nut; if it is bad, discard the pieces.  Good nut meat will tend to be light in color; darker nut meat has probably gone bad.  Smelling the nuts after they are cracked is also an excellent way to test if they are good.  The smell test works best if the nuts have not been toasted earlier.

You may want to toast the nuts after cracking them into small pieces, to help sweeten and sterilize them and help remove any rancidity.

Boiling the Nuts

To make hickory nut milk, put the shell pieces and nut pieces from all the good cracked nuts together in just enough water to cover them, in a covered pan.  Boil them until the water becomes brown, which may take 10 or 15 minutes.  This water is hickory nut "milk."  Some people say the nuts should be boiled for an hour or more to make the milk, and it does improve the flavor.

Pour out the water into a jar, through a strainer.  Put what remains in the strainer back into the pan, add more water and repeat, or else you can just eat the nuts in the strainer for a tasty snack. Nuts obtained this way are especially tasty with salt added.

Do this 3-5 times or until the water no longer turns very brown.  After each boiling you can rinse the shell and nut pieces with a small amount of water and this water will also be brown and can be used as milk.

Now, add a lot of water to the shells in the pan, and stir a lot.  Nut pieces will come to the top of the water but the shell pieces will fall to the bottom.  The separation is remarkable and works very well, after all the boiling.

Remove the nut pieces with a strainer; you will get quite a few of them.  These can even be dried or toasted and eaten if desired.  They can be eaten fresh, too; for this, try to avoid rinsing them because it removes oils that add flavor.  You can also put these nut pieces in a blender with a little water and blend them.   This creates a milky looking mixture.

Add this mixture to the hickory nut milk.  It gives the milk a milkier appearance and also increases the flavor and calorie content.

Another way to make hickory nut milk is to put a cup of shells and nut pieces in a pan with two or three cups of water and boil it for 30 minutes or more.  Then the water can be poured off through a strainer, as milk.  Nut pieces will float and will stay in the strainer, and can be eaten separately.  Be careful that the shells do not get into the strainer, however.  Then you can rinse the shells with a small amount of water to get a little more milk. Then add a lot of water to the shells and stir to get any remaining nut pieces to come to the top; these can be retrieved as the water is again poured through the strainer.

It may take about half an hour to crack enough nuts to make milk in this way.  However, with a heavy metal mallet, the work goes much faster.  I was able to crack about 30 nuts into small pieces in 7 minutes using such a mallet.  The milk can be used as a drink, on cereal, or in or on other dishes such as rice.  It tastes better with a little salt added.  A little can be stored in the refrigerator to chill it before the next meal.  Sometimes the milk tastes better hot than cold. If people knew how good this milk tasted, they might gather hickory nuts just so they could drink the milk. The flavor is deep and rich and mellow, not at all what one would expect from hickory nuts. 

Using this approach one can process a large number of hickory nuts quickly and get quite a bit of nourishment from roasted nuts and a drink, without much work.

Another idea is to store the cracked, toasted hickory nuts in a jar and use only enough of them to prepare milk for a single meal.  The rest can be used for the next meal.  This way you can get fresh hickory nut milk each time, and not take so much space in the refrigerator.  However, be sure to get an even distribution of shell and small nut pieces when doing this.

After the hickory nut milk stands for a while, a layer of oil composed of visible bubbles will form at the top.  The easiest way to extract it is to siphon off the milk underneath it.  However, as the water level goes down, the oil may stick to the sides of the glass.  You can also stick a paper towel or cloth or your fingers into the top layer of oil to get some of the oil that way, or tip the container and spoon off some of the top layer of liquid. This oil can be used in cooking or for greasing bread pans, or perhaps as a hand lotion.  However, be sure to test that you really have oil; if the oil is used up and only water remains, it won’t work for greasing pans.  For cooking bread with hickory nut oil on the pan, it may help to separate the bread from the pan part way through the cooking so that it does not stick.  Also, as soon as the bread is on the pan, start to bake it and do not let it rise again in the oven; in addition, the bread should be spread out on the pan right away by hand, because if it spreads out after the oil has evaporated, the part that spread out will stick badly.  In addition, if a bread pan is well-seasoned, almost anything will work, so check with a small sample on a pan that is not well-seasoned to be sure that this method works, before using it for a large recipe.

It may help to grind the shells as well as the nuts in making hickory nut milk, but I have not been able to do this very well yet.  Adding ground shells may help to make the milk whiter.

Those of you who recognize the danger of cows' milk and don't like the idea of soy milk might consider hickory nut milk. At least it's not GMO and doesn't have hormones or antibiotics!

If you just want to get pieces of nuts and not milk, take the cracked pieces and put them in water and stir it around.  The pieces of nut will tend to come to the top, but the shells will tend to fall in the water.  Then the nut pieces can be skimmed off the top of the water.  This works well, but there may be some pieces of shell in with the nut pieces.  The separation is much better, virtually 100 percent, after boiling, which causes the shell pieces to fall and the nut pieces to float.

You can also open some of the shells and extract the nut and roast it for a little variety.  It takes me about 3 minutes to extract the nut from each shell, so in half an hour I would only get 10 nuts done, but that adds up to a delicious serving of hickory nut.


You can make a delicious soup from chives by picking the chives, both leaves and bulbs, cleaning them, cutting them in pieces, and putting them in some hickory nut milk with a little water and salt added.  Chives are like wild onion or wild garlic; they often grow like grass in some areas.  Boil the hickory nut mixture for about half an hour, then remove the chives.  The remaining soup will have a delicious flavor.  Another idea is to just add the leafy part of the chives, chopped up, and leave it in the soup; it can be eaten.  Another idea is to put a few of the bulbs in, with their stems attached, and remove them after boiling, because their roots can be difficult to remove.  In fact, any kind of an edible vegetable, green, or mushroom could be made into a soup the same way as chives.

For frying, take some hickory nut milk, salt, and water and fry zucchini, yellow squash, or some other vegetable in it.  It tastes really good and the oil content is less than frying with pure oil.

For salad dressing, you can pick some chives, clean them, and put them in the blender, bulbs and leaves, with some water and blend them fine.  Add some salt and oil, possibly hickory nut oil or even hickory nut milk.  The resulting mixture has a great onion taste and can be used as is on many foods, or else combined with more oil or boiled a little to soften the flavor.

Fertilizing Hickory Trees

If you have hickory trees on your property, you might try fertilizing them to produce more good nuts.