How to Harvest Sunflower Seeds
Ranging in size from dwarf varieties—just a foot or two tall—to mammoth 15-footers with spectacular orange flowers the size of dinner plates, sunflowers are a common sight in the backyard landscape. These days sunflowers are generally planted at home for ornamental purposes. But the sunflower predates corn as a domesticated crop and was onceharvested for use in dyes and for its nutritious seeds, packed with vitamins A, B and E, calcium and folic acid. Although it may be a challenge to beat hungry birds to the task, harvesting sunflower seeds as a healthy, homegrown snack is a tasty and time-honored tradition.
Harvest sunflower seeds once the flower has begun to fade. This process is not difficult, but squirrels and birds know this all too well and may clean you out before you can get to them. Once the petals of the sunflower begin to lose their color and the head begins to droop from the weight of the copious seeds, it will take three to four days before the seeds can be easily extracted. To discourage pests, the head of the sunflower may be covered with cheesecloth or a paper bag secured with twine to dry in place. If aggressive birds are a problem, the head may be cut from the stem and brought indoors to dry. Leave about 12 inches of the stem attached to the head, storing it inside a paper bag in a warm, dry place. When the seeds are ready, you should be able to remove them simply by brushing your hand across the face of the flower.
Once harvested, remove any damaged or discolored seeds. Wash seeds thoroughly and allow to dry before eating.
Roasting sunflower seeds will enhance the flavor and make it easier to remove the hull when snacking. To prepare seeds for roasting, place them in a bowl and cover with water. Add 1/4 cup of kosher salt per quart of water used, stir, cover and allow to rest overnight. The next day, drain water and pat seeds dry with a cloth or paper towel.
To roast, spread seeds evenly on a baking tray and place in a 300 degree F oven for 35-40 minutes until seeds begin to brown and the shells start to crack.
Allow seeds to cool completely before serving. Seeds may be hulled before serving with a fair bit of effort, but the back porch tradition of cracking the shell with one’s teeth to extract the flavorful nut within is a pleasure in its own right. Sunflower seed spitting contests are optional, although they still occur at the odd county fair or expo.
Seasoning sunflower seeds can add a tasty spin to an old favorite. To add some spice to your sunflower seeds, place two cups of freshly-roasted seeds in a jar with a lid while still warm. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1-2 tablespoons of your favorite spices, such as garlic powder, cumin, cinnamon and sugar, cayenne pepper and paprika, or your favorite barbecue rub. Shake the jar, cool and serve.
Store roasted sunflower seeds for up to one month in an airtight container. If you have more seeds than you can eat in that time, raw seeds may be stored in an airtight container in a cool location for up to one year without significant loss of quality.