Chef Britt shares her journey on how to make nocino! A traditional Italian liqueur made using unripe black walnuts.
Makes 1 Quart of Liqueur
- 30 unripe walnuts
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 5 whole cloves
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- Zest of one lemon, cut into strips using a vegetable peeler
- 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 liter vodka of your choice
Wearing protective gloves, cut green walnuts into quarters and place into a 2-quart mason jar with cinnamon sticks, half of a vanilla bean, cloves, and lemon zest peels. Cover contents with one liter of vodka and shake vigorously. Place jar in a window for six weeks, coming back every other day to shake the contents of the jar. Add sugar and allow nocino to mature another six weeks while coming back once a week to shake the jar. Strain the contents of the jar out after the secondary six weeks is up. Bottle and serve as an aperitif or in a cocktail.
Try this cocktail recipe: Ring-A-Ding-Ding
It all started with the purchase of my very first house back in 2015. Tucked at the corner of an older Wichita neighborhood, known as College Hill, the property had a variety of trees. There were a couple large oak trees, one giant evergreen, and a few smaller maples. The trees that are part of this story however, are four well-established black walnut trees lining the edge of the property. For the first three years I lived there, I watched the walnuts fall off the trees and get stashed by fat squirrels that were living large. Those squirrels lazed about the yard, laying on their bellies as they cracked each nut for its scrumptious innards, all while littering my yard with these decayed, blackened, cracked husks.
By the fourth year, I decided to give these large and in-charge squirrels a run for their money. Although I have never been taught the ways of harvesting walnuts, the process seemed a little daunting. As a mom with two small kids, a full-time job, and limited space for projects such as husking and curing walnuts to crack, I began to research what I could easily do with these black walnuts. Then I came across a recipe for nocino, a traditional Italian liqueur, and I squeed at the opportunity to use up what was being littered around my yard.
Here are some unripe, black walnuts. They are roughly the size of golf balls, and if allowed to grow and ripen on the tree, they can potentially grow much larger. They have a characteristically floral scent that is citrusy and herbaceous. Upon first glance you might even mistake them for a lime until you get a closer look, that is.
It is important to pick the walnuts just as some begin to fall off the tree, traditionally in late June. At this stage, they are soft enough to cut with a knife. If left to ripen on the tree long enough, the walnut shell will harden, making it too difficult to cut.
Chopping the walnuts reveal their fleshy interior that contains a liquid cavity where a nut would eventually mature into this space as it cures. We chop the walnuts in quarters to expose their flavor to infuse into vodka. It is wise to wear gloves in this process because the juice inside in pungent and stains a darker color as it oxidizes.
I notice even before I am finished cutting all of the unripe walnuts, the interior flesh will quickly begin to darken from oxidizing.
About 30 walnuts are enough to make one quart of nocino, but you will need a 2-quart container (such as this mason jar) to accommodate the space needed for the infusion.
The cut walnuts will infuse with vodka for 6 weeks. Adding a few other ingredients will help mellow the walnut’s bitter flavor. Traditionally you’ll find recipes with cinnamon sticks, lemon peel, vanilla bean, and whole cloves. I made a few different varieties this year to see if there was a noticeable flavor profile with different additions. I added nutmeg to one batch, and lime to another. I’ve also seen recipes adding a few coffee beans to infuse.
Once all infusions are cut and placed into two-quart jars, add a liter of vodka. I experimented again, trying varying qualities of vodka (from dirt cheap to top-shelf) to see if there would be any noticeable difference.
Label your jar (especially if you make multiple batches with varying recipes). Place the lid on and give it a vigorous shake to begin the infusion.
After that initial shake you’ll start to see some color seeping out of the walnuts: bright neon green, even like a tennis ball yellow. Find a well-lit window for your nocino to begin its aging process.
Come back every other day and give the jars a shake, and you will notice the color will slowly change from this bright chartreuse-like color to a more deep, olive green. The walnuts themselves will begin to darken and turn black.
After about six weeks with the occasional shaking (but mostly sitting), they’ll be ready for the next step: adding sugar.
Adding the sugar will allow the nocino to mature in flavor to a more palatable liqueur. Without it, the flavor of the infusions alone would be too bitter.
After the addition of sugar, it’s back to sitting for another six weeks by the window, coming back every week to shake the contents.
After the six weeks of maturation, the walnuts are ready to be removed from the nocino.
Using a simple cheesecloth and strainer combination, remove the solid contents of the nocino. You may decide (like myself) to re-strain the contents again using a coffee filter to remove some fine soot-like material that settles at the bottom of the jars.
After straining, the nocino is technically ready for consumption, but you won’t be impressed. The flavors are too pungent, bitter, and underdeveloped. The nocino needs to continue maturing well into winter before any enjoyable consumption is to happen. Nocino is traditionally given as a Christmas gift, but some experts say Nocino it’s best consumed a year from when the walnuts were picked.
If you’re interested in ideas for what to do with nocino, treat it like you would an amaro or other nutty cordials. It goes very well with cocktails that involve coffee and bourbon. I’ve also had the thought to try it as a substitute for marsala or Madeira in a tiramisu recipe! This is my first year attempting nocino, and while I had my trepidations along the way, I’m very pleased with the end result. I look forward to making this a yearly tradition to share with family and friends. Maybe I’ll get those squirrels drunk and steal all their nuts next season!