You don't have to be a squirrel to enjoy acorns.

You don't have to be a squirrel to enjoy acorns.

These days, everyone is looking for a way to save on food, and you can't beat free. A mature oak tree can produce more than 400 pounds of acorns in a good year. That's plenty of food for anyone willing to put in a little sweat equity to prepare these nuts.

Acorns were a staple in the diet of American Indians in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Ancient Greeks ate acorns. Spanish missions on the West Coast were often located near oak groves to take advantage of this readily available food source. The Korean dish "dotorimuk" is a jelly made from acorn starch and was prepared extensively during the Korean War when other food was scarce.

Just don't try to eat an acorn raw. The bitter taste that sticks to your tongue and the roof of your mouth is tannin, a substance indigestible to humans. Fortunately, it is easily removed by leaching with water, either cold or hot.

The traditional method of acorn food preparation used by the Takelma tribe, the original inhabitants of the Rogue Valley, was to make a coarse flour using a four-step process — shell, dry, grind, leach — according to Suzanne Vautier, who teaches classes in wild edible plants for Lomakatsi in Ashland.

"First, I shell them with a finger-shaped hammer stone. After the nut dries, I use a corn/bean grinder to create flour. Then I leach out the tannins. You can use either hot or cold water, but I usually use cold water, dripping over a basket for a few hours," says Vautier.

The tannin water leached from acorns is brown, so when soaking or simmering the nuts, keep changing the water until it stays clear. Use the taste test to be sure. If the ground acorns taste sweet and nutty rather than bitter, you're done.

If you don't have a grinder, try this: Chop the nut meats into quarter-inch chunks, add water and pulverize in a blender. When you're finished leaching the tannins, pour the remaining water and flour through a fine sieve or fabric to avoid losing the fine particles.

If you prefer to eat acorns as nuts instead of making flour, you can cut the nut meats coarsely instead of grinding.

"You can substitute them for almonds in a recipe. I like to make chili with acorns and elk meat. When you use acorns in powder or flour form, you can substitute it for (wheat) flour in part or in whole. If you cook with just acorn flour, it's heavier than most people expect," Vautier explains.

Acorns have important health benefits.

Acorns are 42 percent carbohydrates, 52 percent fats and 6 percent protein — which is less fat than many nuts. In addition, acorn protein is considered high-quality, a nearly complete protein in a single food. Acorns are also high in vitamin B-6, folate, copper, manganese and potassium. But if you have an allergy to other nuts, beware: You could be allergic to acorns.

Not all acorns are created equal.

The white oaks — those with rounded lobes on their leaves — can sometimes be eaten with little or even no leaching. White-oak acorns take only one year to mature but don't keep as well. Other local species, such as black oak and tanoak, are high in tannins, take two years to mature but can be stored for months.

In his popular book, "Stalking the Wild Asparagus," naturalist Euell Gibbons reported shelling white-oak acorns and roasting them in an oven, with no leaching. When preparing acorn flour, Gibbons often chopped the nuts first then leached them prior to grinding. Either way works.

October is the best month for gathering acorns in the Rogue Valley, according to Vautier. She cautions examining each acorn for tiny worm holes before saving them. She's collecting all she can to prepare her favorite recipes for the Acorn Festival in Selma on Nov. 7.

You won't want to miss the acorn cookies.