Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What's a Cacao Nib and What the Heck Do I Do with It?

Like delicious chocolate nuts, cacao nibs are pieces of the roasted cacao bean. Crunchy and nutty, with hints of liquor-y fermentation, these little gems are the building blocks of artisan chocolate. Taste a cacao nib from Madagascar and you may recognize the red fruit notes commonly associated with Madagascar chocolate. Try one from Venezuela and you may taste walnut notes. Like single-origin chocolate, the flavor of a nib depends upon cacao varietal, terroir, fermentation and roasting style.

So where does a nib come from? After an artisan chocolate maker has roasted cacao beans, he or she needs to remove the papery thin shell on the outside of the beans before beginning the chocolate-making process. Most chocolate makers do this with a machine called a "winnower". The winnower shakes the roasted beans into small pieces (nibs), and air blows the papery shells away from the nibs. So nibs are just pieces of the roasted cacao bean, ready to be ground up into liquid chocolate.

Wondering how the crunchy, nutty nib becomes chocolate? The chocolate maker grinds the nibs, melting their fat and creating  liquid chocolate, more recognizable as what you expect chocolate to be. Cacao is made up of approximately equal parts cocoa solids and cocoa butter, so there's a lot of fat in these beans.

Why would someone eat nibs instead of chocolate? Not only are they a delicious and nutritious snack, but they contain a significant number of antioxidants. They are also good for your teeth, as long as there's no sugar added. If you approach nibs with the understanding that they aren't going to taste like a bar of chocolate they can be a delicious and healthful culinary experience.

So what to do with nibs? The possibilities are endless. Whether you're trying to add crunchy texture to a baked good, depth to a spice rub or a savory note to your pasta, nibs can be used pretty much anywhere. The most interesting recipe we've seen is one recommended by a customer for Cacao and Zucchini Absorption Pasta. Give it a try, let us know what you think!

Other ideas for nibs, many of them from our devoted customers, follow. Have fun trying them!
  • Add to waffles, oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies, yogurt or trail mix
  • Grind with cayenne, salt and other spices as a rub for meat, poultry or seafood
  • Toss with vinaigrette for a nutty note to your salad
  • Cook nibs with sugar to make brittle
Happy nib-bling!

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