Ripened hickory nuts usually begin dropping to the ground in early October. The production of mast typically varies year-to-year, but it seems as though hickories produce the most nuts every third year. This is one of those years; it may be possible to forage for nuts throughout October and into November.
While there are several species of hickory in our area, I believe the tastiest nuts are those of Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) and Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra). Hickory trees are found in mature woods and fencerows. The husk surrounding the individual nut is the easiest way to distinguish between the two species.
This is the nut of Shagbark Hickory.
This is the nut of Pignut Hickory.
IMPORTANT – PLEASE NOTE: Do NOT collect/use the nuts of Bitternut Hickory. These are not palatable! View how to identify this species. This is the nut of Bitternut Hickory.
Once you have collected the nuts, you will likely need to remove the husk off the shell before you crack open the shell.
The husks of Shagbark Hickory often easily separate from the shell. Most will quickly fall off the shell as you pick up the nuts from the forest floor. View how to prepare these nuts for long-term storage.
The husks of Pignut Hickory, on the other hand, will nearly always need to be peeled off. After collecting Pignut Hickory nuts, I typically wait a couple of weeks before proceeding to remove their husks. To do so, I use a pocket knife (a paring knife is a good alternative) and simply insert the blade along the seam of one of the four sections of husk and give the blade a twist to pop off that section of husk. If the husk has sufficiently dried, this task proceeds fairly quickly. However, this additional step does take some time, particularly if you have collected many nuts of this particular species.
Read about foraging for these particular nuts.
After the hickory nuts have had the husks removed, I place them into a sink filled with water for two reasons. First, any nuts that float are discarded; these either did not develop the nutmeat inside the shell or there may be a worm inside the shell – either way, you don’t want those! Second, I want to rinse off any dirt, trail debris or under-husk little fibers that may have adhered to the shells.
Unfortunately, hickories have perhaps the hardest shell of nearly any nut. That makes cracking them open a challenge. THE BEST nutcracker for hickory nuts is this –I was first introduced to one of these particular nutcrackers when I was growing up in east central Wisconsin. The design of this nutcracker makes simple work of the essential task of gaining access to the delicious nutmeats inside. However, once cracked, those fragments of very hard shell must be carefully removed from the delicious morsels of nutmeat. That’s why I carefully sort out only the largest pieces of nutmeat from the rest of the nut as I crack them and simply discard those fragments of shell that may still harbor smaller pieces of nutmeat. Doing so greatly reduces the chance of shell fragments becoming mixed with the nutmeat.
Hickory nuts are my favorite to eat, bar none. While related to pecans, the flavor of a hickory nut is distinctively different and delicious. Hickory nuts also contain a fairly high oil content, making them an excellent nut to use in baked goods.
Hickory Nut Milk (broth)
Hickory Bark Ice Cream (yes – using tree bark!)
I recommend substituting hickory nuts for any other nut (including pecans) in any of your favorite baked goods recipes.