Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina
According to Slow Food USA, Shagbark Hickory Nuts are endangered enough to be listed in their Ark of Taste catalog. This means that the nuts were once deemed a valuable food resource here in the U.S., but have since fallen out of favor in more recent times.
Mature hickories are very easy to identify. They have a huge Eastern North American range (Eastern Canada; Maine to Eastern Texas); however Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan have the highest population density of shagbark hickories. The bark is “shaggy” (hence the name!) and grayish in color. They are deciduous (seasonal leaf loss) and can reach heights of over 80 feet. Their leaves are pinnate with 5-7 leaflets. I tend to find them in forests than contain oak, walnut and other “old growth” species.
Historically, the Native Americans foraged for shagbark hickory trees not only for the delicious rich flavored nuts, but also for the wood which has a high heat density and smoky flavor. My husband and I gather shed shagbark limbs and bark in the fall and use it to smoke meats on the smoker through the winter. Turkey and ham are both excellent smoked with hickory wood and bark. Additionally, syrup can be made from the extract of hickory bark. Unlike maple sugar syrup, hickory syrup is made from cane sugar and a flavoring in the shagbark hickory’s bark (although old literature mentions that sap was sometimes used). Stay tuned for the run down on making this type of syrup (end of post).
When should you gather hickory nuts and bark? Right now! When the nuts mature, they are released from their thick skinned outer cover and the creamy white nuts are easy to spot in the grass under a shagbark hickory stand. For the past week I have been picking up buckets of the delicious nuts. I gather what I can, put them in the freezer if I don’t have time to crack them (to kill pests), and shell them for cookies and other desserts over the winter. Other animals, like squirrels and deer love them too, so you have to be quick. They are also susceptible to insect infestation and for every few nuts you find meat, you will also find wormy duds. The nuts are really hard to shell. If you have a nut cracker, you are half way there. Some sort of nut pick will make life easier as well.
Ok, so do you want to know how to make Hickory Syrup? The recipe dates back to colonel times (or possibly even further back in the NA indigenous cultures). It requires patience and a bit of shagbark bark. The fortunate thing is the shagbark naturally sheds its bark and grows new bark, so taking the bark (in the falling off stage) won’t harm the tree. The syrup is a different sort of syrup than maple. It tastes similar to the taste of hickory smoked meats: slightly sweet, kind of savory with a ‘green’ undertone. It’s good on pork, pancakes or can be made into a unique soda pop (or beer)!
Shagbark Hickory Syrup
1. Make a decoction extract: break up several pieces of the bark and submerge under water (in saucepan). Boil 20-25 minutes. Strain out bark pieces and return the amber colored water to a boil. Reduce to medium heat. This is the most popular technique, but I am going to offer another way. I use my camp stove percolator coffeepot. I break up the wood pieces small enough to fit in the grinds holder and let it percolate for 10-20 minutes. Then, I put the liquid in a pan and proceed.
2. Gradually add regular sugar (either brown or cane), stirring between additions until sugar dissolves. Keep adding the sugar until desired consistency is reached.
3. I’ve heard you can use the nutshells to flavor the syrup as well, but haven’t tried using them.
4. If you don’t live in the Shagbark region, you can get some of the syrup at Hickory Works located in Brown County, Indiana. They are the only commercial manufacturer of hickory syrup.
*Disclaimer: I have no personal affiliation with the company and I have not tried their syrup!