Can you eat conkers? Are they poisonous to dogs, do squirrels eat horse chestnuts - are they edible?

Horse chestnuts can be made edible through a process called leaching
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It's that time of year when horse chestnuts, more commonly referred to as conkers, begin to gather beneath the trees, a sure sign that we are firmly within the grip of autumn.

For youngsters, the round brown seeds may provide hours of traditional fun in the form of a friendly game of conkers. While for adults, the sheer abundance of horse chestnuts may cause many to wonder whether they could play a part in a low-cast, cosy meal.

So can you actually eat horse chestnuts? Do they provide any culinary possibilities for humans, and can our four legged friends join us? Here is everything you need to know.

Can you eat conkers?

Horse chestnuts, also known as conkers, are not edible for humans in their raw form. Unlike edible chestnuts, which come from a different tree species, horse chestnuts contain a compound called aesculin that can be toxic if ingested.

Consuming raw horse chestnuts can lead to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and in severe cases, it can be harmful.

However, horse chestnuts can be made edible through a process called leaching, which involves soaking, boiling and rinsing the nuts to remove the bitter and potentially toxic compounds.

Leaching involves removing the outer husk and cutting the nuts in half or quarters, then soaking them in water for a day or two, changing the water regularly. This helps to leach out some of the bitter compounds.

A squirrel picks up a conker beneath trees that are beginning to show their autumn colours (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)A squirrel picks up a conker beneath trees that are beginning to show their autumn colours (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A squirrel picks up a conker beneath trees that are beginning to show their autumn colours (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Once this is done, the nuts must be boiled in water for about 15-20 minutes, then drained and rinsed thoroughly before being roasted in an oven until they are browned and crisp.

It's essential to note that the process of making horse chestnuts edible is somewhat labour-intensive, and there is still some debate about whether it removes all potentially harmful compounds completely.

Therefore, if you decide to experiment with horse chestnuts in your cooking, be sure to follow the preparation steps carefully, and it's advisable to consume them in moderation.

What can you do with leached conkers?

Once properly prepared, horse chestnuts can be used in various dishes, and can be pureed and used as a base for desserts or as a side dish, or added to soups, especially creamy or bisque-style soups.

Ground or chopped roasted chestnuts can be used in stuffing for poultry, such as turkey or chicken, and you can even grind dried and roasted chestnuts into chestnut flour, which can be used in baking for gluten-free recipes.

For those with a sweeter tooth, chestnuts can be used in desserts like chestnut cakes, tarts, or even chestnut-flavoured ice cream.

Can dogs eat conkers?

No, dogs and other household animals should not eat conkers, as they are toxic to pets, just as they are to humans in their raw form.

Aesculin, the toxic compound found in horse chestnuts, can be harmful to animals when ingested, and if a dog or another pet ingests conkers, it can lead to various health issues, including gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, diarrhoea, and in severe cases, it can even be fatal.

It's essential to be cautious when walking your dog in areas where horse chestnuts may be present, especially during the autumn when the nuts have fallen from the trees. Make sure to keep your pet away from conkers to prevent them from accidentally ingesting them.

If you suspect that your pet has consumed conkers or any other potentially toxic substance, it's important to seek immediate veterinary attention. Veterinarians can provide the appropriate treatment to mitigate the effects of ingestion and ensure your pet's well-being.

Squirrels and some other animals can eat horse chestnuts because they have evolved physiological adaptations that allow them to do so safely, adaptations that help them mitigate the toxic effects of the compounds found in conkers.

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