I’ve liked the idea of pickled green walnuts for a while so last year I made a batch to see how I felt about them. Verdict: Love. I’m making them again. My friends like them too. Pickled green walnuts were a big hit over the holidays where they took center stage on lots of cheeseboards. Folks’ reactions have been fun to observe. You can tell when someone enters uncharted territory, foodmap-wise. “It’s like, what?” Some liken them to watermelon rind pickles—the spice blend is similar. The common describer-words are Worcestershire Sauce and Woody. Makes sense. They are deeply brown, slightly acrid, and somewhat sweet. And they do possess a woodiness, unlike any other food.
This year I almost missed my chance at them. I kept not seeing nuts on a nearby tree. By late June I got suspicious, gathered my nut pole (empty paint roller on and extension pole), and returned to my secret grove. Good timing! Half the nuts were already too large. I gathered a bagful, scooping up some that probably borderline on too large. But this is an ongoing experiment and this batch will reveal which ones are too big.
An English Legacy
It’s for sure that English walnut trees came to the colonies with ye olde pickled green walnut recipes. Early American cookery books included the method for making them. My favorite, The Virginia Housewives Cookbook (1824, Mary Randolph), briefly describes the process in that leaving-out-details-because-everyone-already-knows-this kind of way. Recipes continued to appear in American cookbooks until just after the turn of the century, then pickled walnuts faded away with the Victorians. Back in Britain, the recipe stayed constant. My 1960 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Cookery and Household Management (England’s version of Fannie Farmer, roughly) has a pickled green walnut recipe identical to American recipes from the 1890s. Jump to now and the pendulum is swinging back towards Yankee Reclamation. Last year my Google searches turned up just a few recipes, many from the UK. This year, a host of posts and references. Pickled green walnuts are trending.
Deploying Pickled Green Walnuts
The spicy, pickly flavor of green walnuts makes them fantastic with cheese and cured meats—the perfect counterpoint to all that unctuousness. As well, they can be used as truffle stand-ins. Not exactly the same flavor, but equally alluring. Shave off paper-thin slices with a mandolin over eggs, potatoes, and cheesy dishes like gratins or mac & cheese. I like that green walnut flavor and texture on grilled cheese sandwiches—and they’re sublime on a roast beef & brie sandwich. The English tradition is to add pickled green walnuts to stews and braises and pot roasts. Think Worcestershire chunks. Brilliant!
Below are the over-the-top deviled eggs my friends Glenn and Ashley English topped with pickled green black walnuts. Ashley’s my cookbook and homesteading hero and this is her SmallMeasure InstaGram post.
Making a Batch
The first step in the process is to pierce the nuts in several places so flavor gets to the insides. Wear protection and work outside. The insides are under pressure and the first puncture lets out a high-flying spurt of walnut water. In my haste this year, I forgot what I knew and worked indoors without gloves. My kitchen ceiling has olive drab spatters and my fingertips are permanently stained.
Brining is next and methods can vary here—some do a brief brine, others go long, some change out the brine often, others not at all. I want some fermentation action so I brine mine for two weeks, replacing it halfway through.
After air-curing the nuts a few days, they’re ready to be pickled. The simple route is to cover the walnuts with boiling pickle, seal the jars, and store them for some months in a cool place. You can do it that way. But I choose to simmer my walnuts in the pickle a few minutes. I believe this speeds up flavor uptake. I also can my pickled walnuts (jars, seals, hot water bath). I’m pretty sure that makes them tastier faster too. Bonus is the jars are sealed and durable for gifting. You can always pop open a jar at any time to check progress.
Clockwise from top-left. A darning needle clamped in vise-grip pliers makes a sturdy piercing post • Display brining walnuts in pretty containers • Handling green walnuts is an extraordinarily verdant experience, with their bright green color and intense scent. (Anyone remember green Vitabath?)
GREEN BLACK WALNUT specimens range from just under the size of a quarter to as large as a lime. Inside, their shells shouldn’t be any harder than cardboard. If a needle passes through easily without hitting solid, you’re good. That said, each nut is different, hardness-wise. (If in doubt, I add them to the lot.) Harvest time here is June through early July. The season goes later at higher elevations and farther north. • GREEN ENGLISH WALNUTS have smoother skins than native black walnuts and tend to be less woody at larger sizes.
Pickled Green Walnuts
Makes as much as you wish
Pierce the walnuts through in several places with a large pin—I pierce mine 3 times.
- Gather enough jars or non-reactive containers to hold the walnuts.
- To judge how much brine to make, place your nuts in the container(s) then fill them with water.
- Drain and measure the water and mix that much brine according to this formula:
1/2 cup of salt per 4 cups of water
- Soak the walnuts for 7 days, occasionally pushing them down into the brine.
- Drain the brine and replace it with a fresh batch. Soak for another 7 days. (It can be fewer or more days.) Note: a bit of foamy froth may form on top. That’s fermentation and it’s a good thing. Let it be.
- Using a large colander, drain and rinse the walnuts.
- Spread the walnuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet or tray and place them in a warm spot to cure—out in the sun is great—until they turn completely brown-black. This takes 2 or 3 days.
Calculate how many jars and how much pickle you’ll need by packing jars with walnuts and filling them with water. Drain and measure the water—that’s how much pickle to make, plus 2 more cups. Here’s the pickle formula:
For 4 cups of pickle, add:
- 4 cups apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup sugar—your choice, brown or white
- 1 to 2 inches peeled fresh ginger, cut into thin slices
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons whole allspice
- 2 teaspoons white or green peppercorn, or a blend
- 1 teaspoon (10–15) whole cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mace (substitute ground nutmeg)
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1–2 cloves garlic, chopped (optional)
- Clean and sterilize the jars.
- Combine all of the pickle ingredients in a large non-reactive pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the walnuts. When the pickle returns to a low boil, simmer the nuts for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Pack the walnuts into sterilized jars, leaving enough space so the pickle completely covers the nuts.
- Seal the jars. Once cooled, wipe the jars clean. Store the pickled walnuts in a cool, dark spot for at least 8 weeks. They’re best after 4 months.
THE CANNING OPTION
- Have your canner filled, heated, and ready for processing. Sterilize the jars, lids, and rings.
- Prepare the pickle and simmer the walnuts as described above.
- Pack the jars with walnuts. Leave enough space for the pickle to cover the nuts.
- Ladle the hot pickle into the jars, leaving 1 inch of headspace.
- Wipe the jar rims clean, place the lids, and screw on the rings.
- Lower the jars into the boiling water—there should be about 1 inch of water above the jars.
- Cover the canner and when the water returns to a low boil, remove the lid and process the pickles for 15 minutes.
- Transfer the jars to a towel-covered surface. Once sealed and cooled, wipe the jars clean and store them in a cool space for at least 6 weeks. Green walnut pickles are best after 3–4 months. They’ll keep for several years.