Discovering Shagbark Hickory

Allison Riley lives and works in Miami and describes herself as Southern born. Farmer's daughter. Food adventurer.

One of our favorite MIAbites contributors and qn adventurous cook, her past articles for MIAbites have included posts and recipes on Tailgating, Reclaiming Mid-Week Dinner and Lychee Season. Today's article features her experiment with the bark of the Shagbark Hickory tree.  You can follow her on Twitter at @YallTasteThis or on Instagram @allisonjriley. 

While visiting my family in northeast Tennessee this past summer, I discovered the Shagbark Hickory tree. I remember seeing them as a child growing up there. They grow tall and thin in the woods, and they have scraggly, thick bark that peels away from the trunk.  I never gave much thought to them until my brother-in-law told me about an interview he heard on a local radio program.  In the interview, a woman elaborated about the significance of the bark from these trees within the cultures of the Native Americans, primarily Cherokee, and others who settled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. They harvested the exfoliated pieces of bark, avoiding sections still attached to the trunk in order to protect the tree, and made healing teas. According to folklore, the tea served as a remedy for just about any ailment imaginable.

After reading of its mild, somewhat smoky flavor, I knew the inevitability of Project Shagbark Hickory. On my next trip to Tennessee, I set aside a full day in the kitchen to better acquaint myself with this intriguing ingredient.  Just as quickly as I finished my first cup of coffee and the sun peaked through the sky, I headed for the woods to harvest my first Shagbark hickory. Because of the way the bark pulls away from the trunk, I expected it to be fairly light and thin, but instead, I discovered thick, tough bark. (Honestly, I called in some assistance from my husband, because I couldn't cut through it with the hedge clippers.) Bucket of bark in tow, I headed for the kitchen sink and embarked on the worst part of any kitchen project: cleaning. Usually, the cleaning portion of a day involves scrubbing a pot or two and wiping down countertops, not scrubbing dirt, lichens, and bugs from bark. 

Knowing the reward helped me power through all those dirty shafts of bark, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit this was a test of endurance!

The next step was the easiest of the day: toasting.  Line a few sheet pans with parchment, load them up with bark, and pop them in the oven.  Same as toasting nuts…just toast them until that aroma fills the kitchen.

Now, the fun begins.  Just how many things can one infuse with toasted bark? More than I had time for cleaning, so I narrowed down my list to a few:

1.     Simmering water for a tea:  In my research, I found that Shagbark Hickory Syrup is not a syrup in the same manner as a maple syrup made from tree sap.  It's actually more like a simple syrup made of strong Shagbark Hickory tea and sugar.  I used most of my toasted bark to make tea, because the syrup presented a versatile way to incorporate the Shagbark hickory flavors into other dishes.

2.     Warm milk for an ice cream: Everyone who knows me is familiar with my ice-cream making obsession. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I found a recipe online for the ice cream, and I knew it would be a winner.

3.     Whiskey for cocktails: Smoked cocktails play heavy in the current prohibition-era trends of craft cocktails, and I have become a huge fan.  It seemed like a natural choice to play around with the idea of a smoked Shagbark Hickory old-fashioned.

I steeped the milk for a little over an hour, the tea for three hours, and the whiskey for 48 hours.  Over the next few days, we sampled an array of drinks and dishes centered around our feature ingredient. As with any project, the learning proved as satisfying as the actual end results. I’d do a few things differently next time, but others I wouldn't change in any way. Here's an overview of our Shagbark Hickory bounty:

1.     Tea: I sampled it in its purest form, and alone, I didn't really taste the smoky background I expected. I thought maybe I had simply steeped it for so long that the concentration overpowered the nuance. Because of that, I was concerned the syrup would be overpowering as well, but that was not the case.

2.     Syrup: I couldn't believe the mild Shagbark Hickory flavor of the syrup. Without question, a faint whisper of smokiness and nuttiness cut through the sweetness, but with the tea so strong, I expected a richer flavor. In retrospect, I may have added too much sugar. Next time, I'll taste as I go a little more. Still, it was quite tasty in our cocktails and poured over blackberry corn cakes at Sunday breakfast.

3.     Cocktails: We tried three versions of a Smoky Shagbark Hickory Old-Fashioned. (1) Defiant Whisky w/Shagbark hickory syrup, (2) Shagbark Hickory-infused Makers Mark w/  a sugar cube, and (3) Shagbark Hickory-infused Makers Mark w/Shagbark Hickory Syrup.  The “all-in” third version won us over as the best.  Because of the  Shagbark Hickory’s mild flavor, the drink needed the combination of infused bourbon and syrup in order to highlight that flavor.

4.     Chinese Tea Eggs: I had leftover tea, and I didn't want to just throw it away. In one of those “stand with the refrigerator door and look for inspiration” moments, it occurred to me that maybe Chinese tea eggs could be an interesting vehicle for this tea. So, I added a few cloves, black peppercorns, and a bay leaf to simmering tea and steeped a few boiled eggs with lightly crushed shells. I can't say that this was much of a revelation. The tea flavor was so faint that I wondered if the simple act of knowing what I was eating lead me to believe I tasted anything other than a boiled egg.

5.     Ice Cream: Without question, the coup d’etat of this kitchen project. Wow! Oh wow! Something about the cream and just the right amount of sweetness brought out that smoky flavor I craved in a way that nothing else had! Even my niece and nephews loved it, and they aren't so easily impressed.

All in all, Project Shagbark Hickory won me over. Even now, I'm thinking about other ideas for incorporating its flavors into my kitchen.  It would pair well with Autumn and Winter flavors, such as pumpkin and sweet potatoes.  Lucky for me, there's plenty of Shagbark hickory bark in Tennessee for future endeavors.