Hickory nuts are not always the easiest to harvest and eat. Their hard shells are tough to crack, and once they're open, the brittle meat is difficult to extract and so thin that it may not seem worth the effort. However, hickory nut lovers know that the rich buttery flavor of the nut warrants a bit of a struggle. The best time to harvest hickory nuts is when they begin to fall off the tree. However, you will have to pick them up quickly or you will lose much of your crop to the squirrels.
Harvest the nuts as they fall on the ground or shake them out of the trees. Remove the brown, dried outer husk of the hickory nut with your hand as you go. Either leave them on the ground as natural mulch, or compost them.
Sort the edible nuts from the inedible ones. Immediately throw away any hickory nuts that are small, have holes or are discolored. Put the remaining nuts in a bucket of water. The edible nuts will sink. Discard the floating nuts: their kernels are not well-filled (possibly because they have been eaten by weevils).
Dry your hickory nuts by spreading them out in a cool, dry place. Do not place them outside, or the squirrels will have them for lunch. Hickory nuts take 2 weeks to dry, but you can cut the time by one-third, by using a strong fan to encourage air circulation. Stir the pile with your hand every few days so that the hickory nuts will dry evenly.
Crack the hickory nuts. To do so, place the nut on its side, on a hard surface (a brick is best) with its stem facing the left. Hold the nut between your thumb and forefinger and then hit it on one of its ridges with the hammer, about one-third the way up the shell from the stem. Toss the opened hickory nuts in a bucket.
Extract the hickory meat with a nut pick. Hold the nut over a bowl as you do this to easily collect the falling meat.
Eat your hickory nuts raw or toasted to savor their natural flavor. Or, use them in any recipe that calls for pecans.
Refrigerate or freeze any unused meat.