Hickory nuts are a wonderful addition to your winter stores, just ask any squirrel! They are literally packed with nutrition, providing protein, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorus, potassium, trace minerals and vitamins A and C. They are also loaded with calories as most of the nutmeat's weight consists of high-quality oilreplete with the heart-healthy essential fatty acids.
Hickory trees grow throughout the eastern deciduous woodlands and are fairly common, though one rarely finds dense stands of them. Hickory trees are slow growing and don't begin bearing nuts for 75 years or more. But don't worry, they will live for a couple hundred years beyond that.
Hickory trees are fairly easy to identify by their leaves, but their most notable feature, especially on the more sizeable trees, is their shaggy bark. I can easily spot a mature Hickory tree summer or winter by the bark, which cannot be said of most trees in our region.
A heavy-yielding Hickory tree is a treasure indeed and not easy to find. Some of the old farmers in this area have an old Hickory stand on the property that they tend with care and around this time of the year we can find little advertisements for Hickory Nuts for sale. I have even found bags of Hickory Nuts at yard sales being sold in the fall. There's an elderly disabled man not far from here that busies himself cracking nuts for a hobby and I gratefully invest in a supply of these precious Hickory Nuts every year.
Fresh, shelled Hickory Nuts are not cheap! They go for roughly 2$ a cup in these parts (which is comparable to pecans at the grocery store). On the market they sell for high dollar, as much as 30$ to 40$ a pound! Mostly, however, they are a mighty rare commodity to come by. There are no agricultural sources for Hickory Nuts, so any that you come across were wild harvested.
Hickory Nuts are probably the best wild nut going. They are closely related to pecans (in fact pecans are a hybridized Hickory Nut) and taste something like sweet pecan-flavored walnuts. Anything I bake with Hickory Nuts turns out extra special good!
If you don't have a good source for pre-shelled Hickory Nuts, you'll have to really be on your toes to find a good tree. It's possible to find one on a hike deep in the woods that is bearing, but I've had much better luck in parks, rural waysides and even graveyards where trees have lots of room to spread out and grow and the ground underneath is cleared of brush and regularly mowed. There are a few different varieties of Hickory, but the only one that is considered bitter and unedible is the Pignut Hickory.
Hickory Nuts grow inside thick green hulls, the same as Black Walnuts do, but their hulls are divided into sections and fall right apart when they are ripe so they are far less labor intensive than Black Walnuts. The nutshells are quite hard so you'll need a good set of tools to bust 'em open, and a nutpick besides to dig the meats out. On average, it takes approximately 220 nuts to produce one pound of meat. Time spent to produce this one pound is approximately four hours! You can also store the nuts in their shells indefinitely and just crack 'em as you need 'em.
I store my Hickory Nuts in the freezer to prevent any chance of these precious nuts going rancid or becoming prey to mice or other scavengers. Once I have a store of them in my freezer, I'm ready to bake! You can substitute Hickory Nuts for any recipe that calls for walnuts or pecans. Here are my favorite Hickory Nut recipes (note: you can use walnuts instead of Hickory Nuts if you want to try these yummy recipes out but don't have any of the wild ones.):
Maple Hickory Nut Apple Crisp
Hickory Wild Rice Salad
Maple Hickory Granola
Wild Rice Hickory Nut Stuffing
Hickory Nut Pemmican
A high-quality Hickory Nut oil is available on the market with all kinds of health claims attributed to it:
Refined Pure Hickory Oil
It is also possible to tap Hickory trees in the same way that Maple trees are tapped to make a sweet nourishing syrup:
And here's a few hot links to check out for more information on Hickory Nuts:
Facts on Hickory Nuts
Slow Foods USA: Shagbark Hickory Nuts
Gathering Wild Hickory Nuts