Tough Nut to Crack

February 27th, 2011 | Posted by Alison Spath in Life

If you’ve been following along, you may recall that I recently spent some time hulling black walnuts.

These black walnuts have spent the winter curing in my cool, dry attic. Rumor has it that black walnuts are really hard to open. Rumor has it this would be why I’ve been none too eager to get cracking here.

Black Walnuts Curing in the Attic

Come to find out that when you harbor black walnuts and don’t crack them, you’ll be haunted by backyard squirrel ghosts; the lost souls of squirrels who died from winter starvation because you deprived them of all the food they would have otherwise stored for hibernating.

Squirrel Ghost

I can’t make this stuff up, people.

So with nothing better to do on a cold and snowy afternoon, some new “appliances” made their way up from my basement and into my kitchen today.  It’s time to begin working through my pile’o nuts and hopefully rid myself of our squirrel haunting.

Vice and Rubber Mallet for Cracking Black Walnuts

These appliances would be a vise and a rubber mallet. Not the first time a rubber mallet has seen my kitchen I’m afraid to say.  But the vise?  Yeah.  That’s a new one.

Turns out it’s not just a rumor that black walnuts are hard to crack. They really are hard to crack – I’m here to tell the tale.  (The squirrel tale?  The squirrel tail?)

I have a new found respect for hibernating squirrels.

(Did you hear that squirrel ghosts? I have a new found respect for hibernating squirrels.)

I got out the vise and mallet only after learning the hard way that you don’t want pound on them with a hammer on a wooden cutting board in an attempt to get them open.

Cracked Cutting Board

Lesson learned.

Instead, put your nuts in a vise (this is where that saying came from, FYI) and tighten down the little jaw thingy with the little arm thingy (I did not get an “A” in shop class, FYI).

Black Walnut in Vice

I’d read that if you can find the seam of the nut shell and line it up parallel with vise grips, it will split open nicely.

See the seam there?

Find the Seam of the Black Walnut

Yeah, me neither. Good luck with that.

Seam searching a bust, tighten that sucker down and get out your safety glasses (nerd alert!) OR take the much cooler, more stylish approach and cover your nut with a towel.  One or the other – you don’t want to take a shard of flying black walnut shell to the eye while you’re being haunted by squirrel ghosts – trust me.

Towel for Safety

Pound on that little arm thingy with your rubber mallet until you hear the sweet sound of nuts cracking.


Commence digging with nut pick.

Commence Digging

Yes, this was as ugly as it looks. Yes, I’m going to keep going until I crack. I guess I figure that if I’m going to consume nuts (as I surely do) the nuts I harvested and stole from the clutches of the now-dead backyard squirrels should be among them.

I’m also thinking that if these walnuts are so hard to break into, there’s got to be a reason for it. I bet there’s something really good about these black walnuts – and I want in on it.

Maybe after months of consuming black walnuts my hair will become bushier and frizzier? My teeth sharper and pointier? My eyes smaller and beadier?

Get Cracking

Or maybe they’re hard to open because we’re not supposed to be eating them.  Maybe my next post will be titled “How to Recover from Black Walnut Poisoning”. Maybe I better go order an autopsy of those squirrels that are now visiting me in the night.

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35 Responses

  • sarah says:

    Finally! The post I’ve been waiting for! I hope they taste good, and I trust you to keep us updated. Oh: by the way? It’s “vise”, not “vice”. I leave it to you to come up with a witty sentence to illustrate the difference. =)

  • Jane/you-know-who says:

    And the taste?

    • Alison says:

      Fruitier than an English walnut for sure, some say they don’t like to just snack on them and they are better in baked goods, I didn’t mind the taste though. I’ve got some baking to do later this week and just may try and incorporate them into something!

  • Yikes! That squirrel picture seriously freaks me out.

  • Sharon says:

    Now we know why they are so expesinve. Hope they have some type of assembly line and big machines instead of a bunch of women and vises in the kitchen.

  • Fallon says:

    Wow lots of blood and sweat went into opening those bad boys. I hope they taste good! Do you plan on doing anything exciting with them? lol

    • Alison says:

      I actually might hunt around for a black walnut cake recipe… we’ll see how motivated I get!

      • Mitzie says:

        Yeah….Black walnuts are so different in taste. And there is nothing like black walnut fudge. Yum. Sorry I do not hull them ..some folks around here just run over them with a lawn tractor until they open..Of course, you have to dig them out of the ground. Me.? I just let ’em turn black and open up and then I collect them with gloves on. I have a couple of recipes from my Mom’s old handwritten cookbook. Maybe I will share them. But she only wrote the ingredients and a few instructions which , sadly only I can decipher.

  • “cover your nut” <— !!!! I use that phrase ALL the time, I love seeing it used it a literal sense here. Great post. Hope they were worth the effort (+ the cost of the cutting board).

  • holly says:

    hahahaha! i seriously was wondering whatever became of those nuts…apparently, a squirrel haunting. good to know :)

  • Elsa says:

    Finally found a place that tells the whole story about those darn nuts!
    We have a couple of trees in our back yard and never knew what to do with them. I’ve even considered putting a “Free Black Walnuts – pick your own” sign in our front yard.
    One year we collected them in bucket and put them in the garage but, after a few weeks, we thought they had gone bad as the outer covering seemed to be rotting! Is this the normal process? Or should we have spreaded them out, as your photo shows, from day 1?

    Also, ours seem to drop from the trees still very green! It’s barely Mid-August and already they’re dropping. Will these be any good? Thanks in advance for your reply!

    P.S. Sorry about the long post!

    • Hi Elsa,

      I’m no black walnut expert as last fall was the first time I’d harvested black walnuts, but yes, as I understand it (and in my own experience) the hulls do eventually turn black and begin to rot. If the nuts stay in the hulls too long after the hull turns black, it will change the flavor of the nut meat. From what I’ve read you do want to remove the hulls as soon as possible.

      Our tree is just starting to drop walnuts now too and yes, they are very green! I don’t know for sure if they will be any good, but my guess is that yes, you could probably hull these and let them start drying now. I didn’t get started last year until mid October until they were ALL on the ground. Most the hulls were black at that point as you can see in the pic.

      I read that if you put the hulled nut in water and it sinks, the nut is good. If it floats, it’s not.

      Hope this helps some! Good luck! My best advice is to not do 8 million of them like I did – 10 or 12 will be enough to show you what an enormous amount of work it is.

  • Darlene says:

    I absolutely loved your “hard nut to crack” blog. I have 13 acres of black walnut trees and 8 of those little squirrels that you talked about except mine aren’t ghost. I pick several boxes of walnuts to keep just for the animals. The squirrels come twice a day, early for breakfast and around 5 p.m. for dinner rain or shine. You can check out some of my fuzzy little friends on my website photo gallery. Thanks so much for the posting.

  • Thanks Darlene! I checked out your site, your squirrels look well fed. This will surely protect you from a squirrel haunting of your own – good plan!

  • joe says:

    in 2011 from Oct. to Dec. i cracked out over 20 lbs.of black walnuts, and i never put them in water. i collect samples from the trees ,about see how many are good and how hard they are to get out. if the meat has a dark skin it wont be any good. i try to get them as soon as they fall and dehusk them as soon as i can .

  • joe says:

    there are two points on the shell where the ridges come togeather, the small one is the top and the larger one is the bottom or stem. i always start on the stem because it is softer and the shell will crack evenly. but i never use a hammer or vise, i make my own nut cracker or should i say cutter and have for the last 23 years or so. i cantake the meat out in quorters in less then a minute, hickories take a little longer. that is with good nuts. and my squirrels arent going hungry, i feed the almost every day. love your web site

    • My squirrels are going hungry again this year, our tree didn’t drop any walnuts! I only recently learned that they only drop fruit every couple years. At least the squirrels have the compost pile to dig through and forge for food…

    • Jill says:

      So, how do you “cut” the stem end? I have been trying to hold the nut in a pipe wrench and hitting it with a chisel. I cannot help but think that a certain orientation of the nut-to-chisel may make this easy.

      Laziness is the mother of invention.

    • Joe, will you share your knowledge on the easy way to shell black walnut? My son’s property has black walnut trees and he brings the walnuts to me BUT of boy I need to know an easy way to crack those jewels. Barbaa

  • Mike c says:

    I found out the hard way that the vice will never be on the kitchen table again. I thought I was being careful cracking nuts, but I had to refinish a table top. The color match was the worst.

  • Sylvia says:

    Ha ha! That was funny! I sent this link to my neighbors who have offered up their black walnuts to anyone who will be willing to take them. I remember an old BF’s mother giving me these nuts back in the early 70’s so I could make her boy some fudge. Well, that never happened. I did not have a clue how to open those things. Thanks for the nutty advice!

  • Mona says:

    Just picked 2 bags of these this weekend while we were camping. I’m going to start working on hulling tomorrow after work. They are srumptious in baked goods at Christmas! I have such fond memories of helping my dear dad hull black walnuts! I have to laugh though…my dad would put these in a bag and drive over them…then pick out the nut meat!

    • I received that same advice Mona, to run over them with my car. All I could envision was sending those dang walnuts flying all over my driveway and yard. I guess a bag would saved me from shooting walnuts! And the car could have saved me from breaking out my vice and rubber mallet…

  • Paul B says:

    I put a sheet of cardboard or rough OSB on the sidewalk or driveway, spread out the walnuts, then lay an old board or sheet of rough OSB or plywood on top. Next, I step on the top board and roll it around on the nuts like I’m riding a skateboard (caution – don’t do this if you have balance problems!). This breaks the husks off of the nuts without a lot of effort. It works better if the husks are still a bit green; the older blackened husks tend to mash into the grooves of the shell instead of rolling off.

  • sue says:

    Just picked a bushel of black walnuts but now think I will look for the finished ones at a food store. Also have about 500 Hickory nuts, meat is delightful, but getting it out is frightful, like the B.W. My neighbor told me to put the hickory nut in a brick that has the hole in the middle and hit it with a hammer. Since I ALWAYS wear safety glasses when doing anything foolish like this, I was certainly glad that I had them on. The brick broke in half with the first hit and the whole nut went flying somewhere that only a squirrel knows where. Also tried a vise but that fell off the patio table.

  • Bob D M says:

    Once the nuts are cracked open, I find that it is easier to cut the nut out of the shell with a pair of sidecutters (wirecutters). The nuts come out in much larger pieces. Using a nut pick mashes and tares the nut up too much. And its easier to keep the shells out of nutmeat. Hope this helps someone.


  • Bob D M says:

    A small pair of sidecutters work very well on shagbark hickory nuts. Just like the larger sidecutters work on black walnuts.

    Bob D M

  • elaine says:

    Cute post, Alison!
    The first year at our new house I picked up all the walnuts that I could find. I’ve felt guilty about not using very many of them and starving the squirrels, too (even though we’re in the middle of a forest with plenty of other walnut trees, probably!) Have you-all noticed that the crop is extremely heavy this year? The ground under the trees is almost solid with walnuts! Does that mean it will be a hard winter? The squirrels should be well-fed.
    Thanks for the tip on the wire cutters, Bob!

    • YES we DID have a particularly heavy crop this year! We spent HOURS picking up walnuts, it was nuts! (har har har…) We had practically nothing in 2011 and 2012, I’ve never heard that about a hard winter… we shall see!

  • Joyce says:

    One question from a Californianwho doesn’t get black walnuts. If those nuts are soooo hard to crack, how the heck do the squirrels do it?????

    • This is an EXCELLENT question! Perhaps they carry little vises around with them. Either way, I always find shards of black walnut shell on a tree stump in my yard, somehow they are getting the job done! (Maybe I could hire some squirrels to do the job for me…)