Harvesting Black Walnuts

Harvesting Black Walnuts

Harvesting black walnuts is enjoyable and well worth the effort. Black walnuts are very nutritious and delicious! This is a messy activity, so be sure to wear old clothes, old sneakers and cover your hands with gloves, unless you want to be dye-stained for several weeks.

The black walnut tree is pictured above. Here’s a closeup of the branch and the nut:

If you have a paved, flat driveway and an area with a picnic table, it’s easier to clean a large quantity of black walnuts.

The instructions here for harvesting black walnuts comes from my foraging buddy, George Johanson, who not only works hard to harvest these treats, but shares them with everyone he meets.

Materials:

  • 2 pair rubber gloves
  • old clothes
  • sneakers or work boots
  • wire brush
  • flat, black-topped area to remove hulls
  • flat table tops to clean shells


1. Look for mature black walnuts, preferably with green hulls. You can gather them from the ground, or in some cases, knock them from the tree branches. The nuts with black hulls are older and the liquid in some of these nuts may penetrate the black walnut shell, changing the taste. You may want to remove a few hulls and crack the black walnut open to ensure there is nut meat.

2. Using your work gloves, gather a large quantity of nuts and spread them out on a flat, black-topped area.

3. Using your feet stomp and twist on each nut until the hulls come loose. Discard the hulls in a compost pile or in the woods.

4. Using gloved hands, spread the nuts out on a picnic table or large, flat area. Scrub each black walnut with a wire brush to remove the bits of hull wedged in the crevices.

5. Spread cleaned nuts out to dry so that they are not touching. If you are doing this outdoors, you need to be sure they are in a sunny spot, protected from animals.

6. Once the shells are dry, let the nuts cure for 5-6 weeks. You’ll notice that when you shell a fresh nut, the black walnut meat is rubbery. The curing lets the nut meat get firm.

Gathering, hulling and cleaning black walnuts (and butternuts, if you can find them) is labor intensive. But once cleaned and cured, they will last for a year or more – if you can refrain from eating them that long.

On harvesting…

Despite wearing two gloves on each hand, I managed to puncture both layers with the wire cleaning brush. What I learned is that I need to replace my wire brush more frequently. Meanwhile, I have brown hands for the next couple of weeks.

To date, I have harvested over 500 black walnuts. I can clean 25 walnuts an hour.

I’ve been stomping hulls of walnuts while singing Peppermint Twist or Twist and Shout. I try to mash the nuts on the road where I find them.

Then the real work of harvesting black walnuts starts. I put on my gloves and load the hulled nuts into a bucket.

I grab a wire brush and head for the car wash to scrub the remaining hull material from the nut. I find that if I pick up nuts that have been hulled or if I hull them several hours before I clean them, that it’s harder to clean the nuts.

Here’s what my tools look like after cleaning 400 nuts. Note the missing wire brush bristles and the shredded gloves, as well as the cleaned nuts.

Next, the cleaned nuts need to be allowed to cure for four or five weeks. You can eat them now, but the texture is rubbery. They will taste much better a month from now.

I don’t have a way to keep the drying walnuts from predators, so I put some storage baskets to use in a new way.

I’m motivated to do this, in part because George Johanson gifted me a walnut cracker. I now understand why black walnuts are expensive to purchase.

Harvesting black walnuts is hard work, but the quality of what I get to eat makes it worth the effort. There is simply no substitute for nutritious food.

34 Comments

  1. cajundave

    Helpful , Hint,-useing a rideing mower or 4 wheeler on hardtop will nock off hulls faster and easer. Also if you have a multi speed grinder with a wire disk works well.Just keep the speed down low and wear safty glasses…

  2. Jean

    When I was a kid we picked up the black walnuts by the bucketfuls and threw them in the drive (gravel) and my folks drove over them to get the shells off. Then we left them to dry My mom never sat down of an evening that she didn’t have a pan of cracked walnuts to take the nuts out of.
    After I got married, we did the same with butternuts and hickory nuts.

  3. abitowhit

    Another tip. I just tried this in Cleveland. I took one of those blue shop towels used for auto and wrapped the full nut in it. A few taps with a small sledge hammer and the nut came right out. I wore those cheap food servive gloves and no yella fingers. I cracked the nut with it as well just to see what the innards looked like. Only black walnut I had when younger was horrible so I figure it was molded after reading your notes. I will try this year since I now have my own trees and they seem pretty plentiful this year. Thanks!

  4. Mike

    Everyone- Thanks for your intiative in getting me to try this. I have to add my share which you will all appreciate. An incredible easy way to help you all. If you are fortunate enough to have a gas power washer-
    I used a gas power washer and a have-a-heart cage. I filled the cage with about 100 walnuts already hulled and power washed them. the cage keeps them from flying all over the placce. 10 min. in the cage and they were all unbelievebly cleaned!!!!!

  5. Andrea

    I have lived in Ohio for about 5 and a half years….my kids kept asking me what this tree was in there yard. I told them I thought it was a walnut tree. My granny and I used to pick them up in Kentucky when I was little after they had ripened. I would just throw them at a roof, trying to get it in a hole. I had no idea about how to harvest them since I had never really done that before. My kids kept picking them and playing a game to knock a plastic ball down…I finally looked up info and came to this site. Now the kids are collecting them…..I’m trying to figure out how to get the high ones down…I guess we will wait until they fall. We are moving to Texas and so we will be taking them with us to finish drying them out. I am really excited.

    Thanks so much for letting me experience this lesson to my kids. Your site is very simple and it will bring great joy to my family by the holiday season.

    Thanks,
    Andrea

  6. Lesli Peterson

    We’ve lived with about 10 trees for almost 10 years and have done nothing with these nuts except curse them for dinging our cars. I think we will have to follow these instructions (with the help of the 4 wheeler and power washer comment suggestions) and see if we can come around to appreciating more what we have here. Thanks!

  7. Grahamnation

    Thanks for the tips. Just started foraging, dandylions are a big hit and then went to black walnuts (have two in my yard–never noticed them) After completely tatooing my hands, I then ate one and…it was nasty, soapy and rubbery–I was heart broken. didn’t know about the curing, will try again.

  8. Asterglow

    There are three large trees right next to my garage and house. This is a “mast year” I guess because in 30 years I have never seen so many nuts. I have tried to process them in the past and always failed for one reason or another, but now the internet is helping me learn about the right way to do it. I don’t want to stain my driveway pavers so I put the nuts on a piece of plywood and smashed them with a hammer to get the husks off. I put the nuts in a plastic milk crate and used the highest pressure on the garden hose nozzle to clean them off. They are now drying spread out on some old window screens in the garage, so I am looking forward to cracking them open in a few more weeks. There is no way I can use all these nuts so I am trying to give some away. Happy squirrels!

  9. Susan Bottoms

    Where can a walnut cracker be purchased? Do they work well?

  10. sami

    I have a big walnut tree in the back and I never tired to keep the nuts, I remember as a kid how hard it was to get to the nut. Lots of work but you know after reading some I think I will give it a try this year. Wish me luck. Thanks for the inspiration everyone. I love to cook at the holidays with walnuts. They are quite costly.

  11. This is very cool! I don’t normally scrub my nuts – I just clean them and check their buoyancy and let them dry in the sun for a few hours. After that I let them dry in a cooler area for about a week and then cure them for a while.

  12. Andrew

    this is a very good article. my family has been harvesting black walnuts for years now, this year we had so many! i just finished hulling them last week. when i hull them i just put them in my hand, squeeze and twist. the hull comes right of. if the hull is still green the majority of it comes off so i don’t wash it. then when i get a large quantity (about 50-100) i bring them in and put them in my sink (stainless steel) the ones that float, discard they don’t have a full shell. then i just put them in front of a fan to dry.

  13. Alicia

    I actually found this post looking to see if the nuts were edible after I used the hulls to make a Black Walnut tincture (an anti-fungal, anti-parasite, anti-parasite, and is high in iodine).
    Now I know I can use it all, thank you for the info :)

    • Can you share with us how you used the hulls to make the Black Walnut tincture, and how it’s used?

  14. connie

    I’m a novice at this…I picked a basketful and have them spread on newspaper in my basement, but they are moldy now….should I remove the soft, black moldy part? Will the nuts still be good???

  15. Ed

    Does anyone know if you can let them age TOO long ? Will they spoil ?

    Another idea….after I’ve removed the green husks, I put a small amount of nuts at a time in bottom of a plastic 5 gallon bucket that has a bunch of 1/2″ holes drilled in the bottom. Then I use an electric power washer. The water drains out of the bucket and leaves the cleaned nuts behind !
    I let the nuts age and then use them to bake a black walnut cake or cookies at Christmas.

  16. Kat hy Bennett

    We have a walnut tree that must be around 50 years old. It would take 3 adults with their arms stretched out to reach around the base. I gather about 500 lbs of walnuts each year, while letting the birds and bears eat their fill.

    When the nuts begin to fall from the tree, I step on them with old hiking boots to help get the hulls off. Wearing plastic gloves I toss the nuts into my wheelbarrow. I then swoosh all the nuts through a bleach/water solution, rinse them in clean water checking for cracks, damaged ones and peeling any last bits of hull off. Sometimes I use an old toothbrush or scrub brush.

    I really like the idea of a power washer though!!

    I then spread as many walnuts as I can onto metal racks and stack them one on top of another on our little space heater in the basement, leaving them for a few hours to dry. It also helps to keep a fan blowing air over the nuts. When dry to the touch I start to bag the nuts in large 50 lb onion bags. The onion bags are suspended over the space heater as well. On warm/windy days I hang the onion bags outside on the washline from strong hooks.

    When the nuts are cured I sell them to a local store (the store also provides me with onion bags). Check the onion bags for any holes that may be too large and will let the nuts slips through.

    Kathy

  17. Matilda

    How long do you cure them inside if you cannot cure them outside? Can you cure them in the oven?

  18. Jim Kuertz

    The method I use to clean Black Walnuts

    When I hull black walnuts I remove the hull by rubbing my shoe on a nut on the ground. After cleaning a hundred or so I gather them, put them in a bucket then use a garden hose with a spray nozzle to tumble them in the bucket with water to clean most of the hull from the nut. While they are in the bucket full of water I discard any of the floating nuts, These nuts that float are bad. I found this 99.9% of the cured nuts are just fine. I dry the cleaned nuts on an old window screen.

  19. Andrew

    I’m a novice at this as well. I’m not sure of the amount of time required for proper curing, but I tested a few after mine have been curing for about 3-4 weeks, and they’re just about there. I know when I first taste tested them, they were extremely bitter, almost taking on a really strong cherry flavor at first, finished off with an overly sweet walnut taste, not very appetizing, to be honest. After my curing technique, and determination that I hadn’t just wasted my time with nasty tasting nuts, they are, for the most part, crisper (less chewy), and have a more proper walnut flavor. I would compare it to a sweet english walnut.

    Mark my words, if you taste them fresh, you will not like them, but after proper curing, the taste does change to something you will love! I am going to let them cure for another week or two to crisp up a little more, but I’ve let a few people taste them so far and they liked them!

    I cured mine as follows:

    1. I lay them out on tarps to dry in the sun for a few days, maybe even a week.
    2. I put them in my barn with really good air circulation for a few weeks. I built custom wooden racks with plastic chicken wire, and stacked them up. Then, I set up a couple of small fans to blow on them. No molding, so far, and the ones I tested today taste really good!

    I figure this method will suffice, and winters right around the corner, where the cold weather will help take over and prevent these from spoiling. I’ve got a lot of nuts to crack, I’m guessing around 300-400 lbs of shucked nuts!

    Wish me luck!

  20. rob

    I am new at this but i am ready to wash them. i think i will try to dry them in a burlap bag or pillow case and put them in the dryer. this might work.

  21. Danny

    My renter tried harvesting the black walnuts in the back yard … granted they were delicious, but he could never get them to come out of that shell whole or even half. he had to dig the meat out in small pieces and no matter what he did, pieces of shell ended up in whatever he baked with them. grabbing a handful to munch on was out of the question. Nothing but pieces of the inner shell… it just made eating them disturbing, not knowing when you might almost break a tooth. What did he/we do wrong?

  22. Wanna

    I can remember my Papaw had his own “black walnut washing machine”. He picked up a mini gas powered cement mixer at a flea market for $30. Every year he’d put some water, gravel, and black walnuts into the mixer and run it for a while. The gravel and water would scrub the shells away. After a while of running, he’d drain the dirty water and add fresh for “rinse cycle”

  23. Phil E. Drifter

    This is great, thanks for the info. My neighbor has a walnut tree right across the property line and I’m often finding walnuts dropped onto my lawn and I think it’s a terrible thing to let them go to waste! I will be bookmarking this page and reporting back to you hopefully with some good news!

  24. Thanks for this post. My grandfather had a walnut tree and I now remember his racks of drying walnuts. What a pleasant memory.

  25. Pastor Paul

    I’m always looking for the simplest, fastest, and best ways to do things. Here is my plan for walnuts from start to finish.
    1. Place a sharp knife horizontally and blade up in a vice. Minimize distractions for safety.
    2. Roll a green or yellow walnut along the knife from front to back. The halves will separate easily with a twist. (I can do six per minute)
    3. Put the hulled walnuts in a bucket, then dump about 75-100 into a have-a-heart squirrel trap.
    4. Spray with high pressure garden hose, turning trap frequently to expose all surfaces to water. (Three or four minutes)
    5. Dry them however and wherever the squirrels won’t get them for a month or two.
    6. Crack them on the sides with a hammer on a hardwood block with several strikes of the hammer. Be careful not to smash the nuts. Use only the force necessary to crack the shell.
    7. Extract nut meat that is loose break smaller sections of shell with hammer to remove remaining meat. (Two or three nuts per minute; no need to use a nut pick.)
    8. Place nut meat on a dry paper towel in one layer. Move pieces around and remove any shell fragments. (I find few, but don’t want any.)
    9. Store the nuts in a freezer for later use.

  26. tcr

    DO NOT put hulls in the compost pile!! They are toxic to many plants!!
    Other than that, thank you for the useful information!

  27. Ike

    Put 5 gallons of black walnuts with hulls on in a metal garbage can and place 5 gallons of water in with them. Cover with the lid and let sit for a year. Makes the best black walnut stain you will ever use. Check the water once a month and add a little as needed. We used to make this and give it away….people love it and it is an oil based stain.

  28. JJ,

    Thanks for the article. You inspired me to stop looking at downed walnuts as an annoyance and give harvesting a try.

    Have you found any uses for the dye the walnut carries?

  29. Aaron

    my great grandperents/ to my self just wate till thay fall off then gather em up and leave the husk on and store em in baskets in the basement or root celler. the husk flakes off after a few months real easy, recommend a hamer and anvil to crackem open, the shells burn vary hot in the stove.

  30. SJeanine

    We have a walnut tree in our yard…my son and I pick them up and toss them…often finding maggot looking things coming out of them! Cant imagine trying to eat em! Uck!

  31. p. barnes

    My dad used to jack up the rear of his car just high enough for the walnut to be thrown under the spinning tire on our gravel driveway,,make sure you put a backstop behind the car to catch the…………..worked great and was fun for us kids to do.

  32. Osiris

    you have to leave them sitting for weeks? the hulls were white on green ones I picked off the tree. I found many crushed ones on the ground, hulls removed already. maybe a neighbor was doing that. I thought you ate them right away and so when I smashed them (easily done with a rock), all that was inside was white stuff and goo.

  33. Brian Long

    The Hulls mixed with 100 % alcohol will cure foot fungus & toenail fungus, but will stain your feet for a few days. soak your feet it’s great :)

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