Acorn “meatballs” may appear to be nothing more than bland brown rounds. Don’t be fooled by their unassuming appearance. Acorn meatballs are actually the shape-shifting superheroes of a forager’s kitchen. A blank canvas for flavor, acorn meatballs can be seasoned in hundreds of ways, then served up in sauces, soups, sandwiches, salads and more.

Dehydrated acorn meal or crumbles.
Acorns might seem like an unusual food source to the uninitiated. However, they are perfectly edible once ground and leached of the tannins that give them an unpalatable astringency. To discover more about the process I use to prepare acorns to use in cooking, click through here. To learn pretty much anything you would ever want to know about harvesting acorns for food, I can think of no finer resource than Sam Thayer's chapter on acorns in Nature's Garden.

Once I became comfortable with processing acorns, I was able to stock my pantry with them in good quantity. The trick thereafter was to find meaningful ways to make acorn a staple in my kitchen. One of the common way to use acorn is to substitute it for part (1/4 - 1/3) of the flour in baked goods. This trick works for everything from quick breads to cookies. I've used acorn meal to make blini, pie crusts, brownies, and even sticky toffee pudding. Still, my ultimate acorn recipe would be one that uses acorn as the major ingredient, and is a savory main dish, not a side or dessert.

For years, my favorite way to use acorn has been to make falafel, combining dried acorn meal with seasonings and eggs, and frying up patties to serve with yogurt sauce. It occurred to me that if I could manipulate my falafel recipe to come up with a formula for making acorn meatballs, I'd have my Holy Grail acorn dish. Further, that recipe could be a template for global flavors, for acorn "meatballs" of the world.

I started out testing my acorn meatball recipe with several different binders, with everything from bread crumbs to oatmeal to amaranth flour. All yielded acorn meatballs that were too dry. Five or six test batches in, it finally occurred to me that potato would both bind the acorn crumbles and keep them tender.

For ease of testing small batches in a hurry, I started out by borrowing potato flakes from my neighbor. I'd always intended to switch the recipe back over to real potatoes once I got the ratios of the other ingredients sussed. In the end, I was pretty surprised to find that I preferred the control that potato flakes provide in a recipe that already has variable moisture content due to irregularity in how acorn dries post-leaching. I’ve never before had potato flakes in my kitchen, but I've gotta tell you I'm now a fan. They are inexpensive, shelf-stable, and there are even a few organic varieties on the market. Potato flakes also make excellent light gnocchi, another wonderful dish for showcasing wild ingredients, that can go from mixing bowl to your plate in 15 minutes. Stay tuned for that recipe, which I'll have ready to share with you shortly.

I think you'll be won over by these acorn meatballs. They're filling, inexpensive, and downright satisfying. Once you have mastered the basic acorn meatball recipe, you can flavor them in an infinite variety of ways. They take particularly well to sauces, soaking up flavors like a sponge. However, they hold their shape in soup and are also outstanding in sandwiches. There’s hardly a country or culture in the world that doesn’t have a beloved meatball dish, so one could potentially eat a new acorn meatball recipe every night and still not run out of new recipes. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Italian-style: Add garlic, onion, oregano, basil, and fennel seeds and a little bit of finely shredded hard cheese to the meatballs. The cheese is especially nice in acorn meatballs. Serve them in a marinara sauce, either atop pasta or tucked into a crusty roll.

Lion’s head meatball soup: Season the meatballs with a touch of sugar, some Saoxing wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and green onions. Add the acorn meatballs to soup made from broth and cabbage.

Meatballs in coconut gravy: Take inspiration from your favorite region of India. Add fenugreek and onion to the acorn meatballs, then warm them in a thick coconut milk gravy spiced ginger, garlic, a pinch of turmeric, and garam masala.

Albondigas: Add parsley, mint, and garlic to the acorn meatballs and serve them in a broth made with onion, garlic, tomato, and stock.

Arancini-style cheese-stuffed nuggets: Carefully squeeze a nugget of cheese into the center of your acorn meatballs as they are formed.

Syrian meatballs in cherry sauce: Add cinnamon, chopped dried cherries, and Aleppo pepper to the meatballs and serve them glazed with a reduced sauce of cherry juice, cinnamon, and onion.

Persian: Add chopped fresh dill, tarragon, parsley, green onion, garlic, turmeric, and advieh so that the acorn meatballs are vibrantly green.

Acorn meatball sliders: If you've got tiny rolls and burger toppings sitting around, slightly flattened acorn meatballs make pretty terrific mini-sliders.

Greek: Season the acorn meatballs with oregano, mint, parsley, garlic and bit of tomato paste. Serve them with feta or tzatziki sauce.

Thai: Put a little fish sauce in the meatballs. Then serve them with a crunchy slaw dressed with more fish sauce, garlic, and ginger.

Israeli: Form the basic acorn meatball along with onion, garlic, parsley, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and paprika, then simmer them in a thin tahina sauce.


Universal Acorn Meatballs

makes 16 1" meatballs, approximately 4 servings

1 cup acorn crumbles*
4 tablespoons plain dehydrated potato flakes
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 eggs
2 tablespoons boiling water*

1. In a bowl, stir together the acorn crumbles, potato flakes, baking powder, salt, and your chosen spices and flavorings.

2. Add the oil and eggs, and stir them until the mixture looks like wet sand.

3. Add the hot water and combine well. Press the acorn meatball mix into one piece, cover the bowl, and let it sit for 30 minutes. Do not skip this rest period, as it is necessary for the acorn crumbles to fully hydrate.

4. Form the acorn meatball mix into 1” balls. This works best if you first give the lump a firm squeeze, then proceed to roll it into a ball.

5. In a pan over medium heat, cook the meatballs in a little oil until they are brown on most sides, about 10 minutes. The acorn meatballs are already quite brown raw, so keep an eye on them as they cook to make certain they aren’t burning.

6. Once they've been browned, acorn meatballs can go directly into the recipe of your choice. They also refrigerate and freeze well. Pre-cooked frozen meatballs make for speedy weeknight dinners.


*The acorn crumbles I use in this recipe are very specific to the way that I process them (the process is linked in the text above). I live in an arid climate and dehydrate my crumbles in the dehydrator, thus ending up with an extremely dry product. Your acorn crumbles may have a significantly different water content, and you may need to adjust the liquid used in this recipe accordingly. Additionally, if you are seasoning your meatballs with liquid ingredients like soy sauce or wine, you may need to adjust the amount of water used.

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