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.