We had a comment on a recent post, about removing sunflower seeds from their shells, because I had said there were instructions online about how to do this easily. I had not tried it myself yet, so was waiting to post the specifics until I had first hand experience. Well, I can now give an informed opinion on separating the fairy tale from how well it worked in reality.
First we have the sunflower heads. We waited until the head backs were dry before removing seeds, but quite a few went to the birds and squirrels along with some smaller stalk heads blown over in the wind. Our seeds were white instead of dark-streaked when mature, which is normal for Tarahumara. The two seed heads given to us by our gardening neighbor Larry are shown in the picture so you can see the difference in size and color of the mature seed heads.
The Fairy Tale Version
After we removed the seeds by hand into a bowl, it was time to try the shelling method I’d seen described online. I initially thought I’d pulse the seeds in the food processor to break the shells, but this didn’t work so great. So, I used our little grinder instead. After grinding a small batch I put the bits in a bowl of water. Sure enough, the seed parts sank and the chaff floated. I skimmed off the shell material and drained the seeds. This all sounds neat and tidy, somehow even efficient, but I have some observations about this process in view of the finished product, that makes me rethink doing it again.
Processing in Reality
1. It took several times in the grinder to get seeds in a batch all broken. This means after each grinding I had to pick out the ones not yet opened to redo. If one grinds too much, more seeds are broken, but more seed parts become too small and these either plugged the bottom of the strainer or went through it. If one didn’t grind enough, the pieces were larger, but it took multiple times to even crack them open. I never reached that Goldilocks equilibrium, and always had a batch with a half to a quarter of the seeds that needed to be redone, to avoid pulverizing the whole lot.
2. The beauty of this process is that the seeds do in fact separate from the chaff in the water. The beast of it, as seed savers may tell you, is that the nonviable seeds will float with the chaff. In making sunflower butter, it does not matter if seeds are viable, and a small portion of the seeds floated with the debris. Towards the end I skipped the water bowl and just used the grinder to break the seeds open and then sifted through the shells. I suppose someone could try winnowing the seeds after grinding, but I didn’t.
3. I started out with roughly a pound and a half of seeds. After this lengthy process I ended up with a scant cup of seeds to make the sunflower butter. I wasn’t under illusions that it would spin into gold or something, but unless one really wants to try this, if Sunbutter is too expensive and an allergy to peanuts or a massive peanut crop failure has made that option prohibitive, I would probably not bother to try this again. If one had inexpensive shelled seed available, that would change the story, but it would also make this process moot.
In the end, I took that scant cup of sunflower seeds and put it in a food processor with about 3 Tbsp of canola oil gradually added to check for texture. I also added 1 Tbsp of honey, but refrained from adding any salt. I agree that oil and sweetener should be added a little at a time for individual preference. In the end, it turned out alright. Here’s a picture of some, in its natural grayish brown color, spread on a slice of rye bread. For a tip on reusing fried sunflower stalks keep reading.
ReUsing Sunflower Stalks
I’ll conclude with a word on the sunflower stalks. We had finished drying the heads in the garage, when it occurred to me that we could use the firmer stalks for either growing stuff on next year or other crafty uses. I’ve not tried it before, but I saw someone online suggest spraying a sealer on them to keep them from going to mush in the rain. Whether that works as well as it sounds in theory, we don’t know. A future post addressing this subject may take a similar tack: Jack and the Lean-stalks.