How to cook with cocoa nibs

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Cacao nibs or cocoa nibs are shards of cocoa bean most often associated with the chocolate-making process — though more and more they are being used as an ingredient in their own right.

The primal ingredient has pure and bitter cacao flavours, meaning that they work in both sweet and savoury dishes. It’s the nibs’ texture which is particularly distinctive though. The shards have a lot of bite. They’re harder than most nuts, almost like crystallised sugar —certainly more comparable to a Brazil nut rather than a softer almond or pecan.

Cacao nibs are created as part of the chocolate-making process. The cacao beans are roasted and then ‘cracked’ — separating the husks from the nibs. A technique called ‘winnowing’ blows the husks away, removing 25% of the original weight, and leaving the cocoa nibs behind.

At this point, the nibs are most commonly ground into a chocolate liquor, and then mixed with milk, sugar and emulsifier to make chocolate. But more often than ever, nibs are removed and packaged, and sent to restaurant kitchens round the world, to star in dishes as an ingredient in their own right.

Cacao nibs are renowned for their high levels of anti-oxidants. They are also a good way of introducing chocolate flavours to diets which wouldn’t otherwise allow it, like veganism. Increasingly, cacao nibs are found in high street health shops, as well as speciality online food shops. As with purchasing chocolate, it’s advisable to look for organic, and ethically-sourced products.

cocoa powder

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what is it?

When it comes to delivering deep, dark chocolate flavor, plain old cocoa powder is hard to beat. Made of finely ground partially defatted cocoa solids, it comes in two styles: natural (simply labeled unsweetened cocoa powder) and Dutch-processed (or alkalized), which has been treated with alkali to neutralize its natural acidity. Both taste bitter out of the box, but natural cocoa, which is lighter in color, has a fruitier, more acidic chocolate flavor, while Dutched cocoa, is mellower, with an almost nutty flavor.

kitchen math:

2-1/4 oz. = 3/4 cup

don’t have it?

In recipes without a chemical leaven (baking soda or baking powder), you can substitute Dutch-processed cocoa powder for natural cocoa powder. But the two types of cocoa react differently with baking soda and baking powder, so if your recipe contains these ingredients, stick with the type of cocoa that’s called for.

how to choose:

There are flavor variations among brands. You might find that you love the complex flavor of premium brands, such as Merckens and Valrhona, or you might prefer the familiar flavor of the supermarket brands like Hershey’s and Nestlé.

It’s a good rule of thumb to keep both natural and Dutch-process cocoa in the pantry; Scharffen Berger and Nestlé for natural cocoa, and Dröste for Dutch-process.

how to prep:

Use the type of cocoa your recipe requires. Natural cocoa is slightly acidic, so it’s usually paired with baking soda to neutralize the acidity and deepen the color. Dutch-process cocoa has been treated with an alkaline solution to darken its color and mellow its flavor. It’s neutral to slightly alkaline, so it’s typically paired with neutral baking powder. If your recipe doesn’t call for baking powder, baking soda, or acidic ingredients like sour cream or buttermilk, you can use either cocoa.

If your cocoa powder is lumpy, sift it through a sieve before using. This is usually necessary only with cocoa that has been stored for a few months; lumps in fresh cocoa will disappear with gentle whisking.

Whisk cocoa in with dry ingredients or with the smallest amount of liquid before adding it to wet ingredients; otherwise, it’s harder to break up any lumps

5 Surprising Ways to Cook with Cocoa

Cacao beans in the hands of an Ecuadorian farmer.
Cacao beans in the hands of an Ecuadorian farmer.

When we think of chocolate, usually desserts and candy bars come to mind. But believe it or not, chocolate makes a great addition to savory dishes, as well. Just think of a delicious Mexican mole poblano sauce, and how it complements chicken. Now that research reveals that cocoa powder contains compounds that can protect against stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, it’s a great time to try more cocoa recipes and enjoy main dishes that contain this healthy ingredient.
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What makes cocoa recipes so healthy? Cocoa beans are a particularly potent source of antioxidants, substances that mop up free radicals. Free radicals can damage blood vessels, leading to heart problems. The damage they cause can also lead to cancer-triggering mutations. Studies have also shown that flavonols, antioxidants found in chocolate, help lower your levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and boost “good” HDL cholesterol. They ease inflammation and help prevent clotting and arterial plaque formation. Also, chocolate can reduce blood pressure, and may help prevent type 2 diabetes by encouraging hormones to transport sugar from the blood into cells for fuel. In addition, a Georgetown University study found that when human breast cancer cells were treated with pentamer, another antioxidant that’s found in cocoa, the rapid growth that can lead to tumors was interrupted. If pentamer is found to perform the same way in the body, it might have potential as a cancer treatment.

Natural unsweetened cocoa powder has the highest level of cocoa flavonols and is the healthiest form of chocolate. And as we were reminded last month—October being Fair Trade Month—your chocolate purchases can help improve the lives of small farmers if you buy organic, Fair Trade–certified cocoa powder. Fair Trade certification aims to protect farmers in developing countries from exploitation by large corporations or from price fluctuations for commodity crops. In order to be Fair Trade–certified, companies are required to pay farmers a fair price for crops, enabling farmers to pay their workers a living wage, avoid using child labor and practice environmentally friendly farming methods.

Adding cocoa to savory dishes is a great way to get the benefits of chocolate without all the fat and sugar usually found in sweet chocolate-based treats.

#1: Black Bean Cocoa Soup with Lime Zest. You’ll want to double this delicious recipe featuring protein-packed, fiber-rich black beans; keep the leftovers on hand to reheat as needed (freeze it if you won’t be using it in a week or so).

#2: Spicy Chicken Stew. This nourishing stew uses ingredients you’re likely to have on hand, and is ready in less than 30 minutes.

#3: Spinach Salad with Maple-Mustard Dressing. This highly nutritious salad gets its crunch from cocoa nibs—roasted cocoa beans separated from their husks and broken into bits. Other ideas for using cocoa nibs: Try them in your favorite cookie recipe, or on top of ice cream.

#4: Beef Burgundy. This classic dish is elegant enough for an autumn dinner party and hearty enough for the coldest winter night. Round out the meal with crusty bread and a green salad.

#5: Slow Cooker Black Bean Chili. Cocoa powder is a great addition to any chili recipe. More ideas: Sprinkle cocoa powder into yogurt or cereal, or stir it into banana or zucchini bread batter.