Bitter Crunchy Chocolate Bits: Cacao Nibs

Ingredient Spotlight

Call them cacao nibs or cocoa nibs or chocolate nibs or just plain old nibs. We will happily sprinkle them on oatmeal, bake them into muffins, and stir them into ice cream regardless of name. There's just so much we can do with this crunchy, bitter-sweet ingredient.

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You can think of cacao nibs as unprocessed chocolate. After the cacao beans are roasted, winnowing separates them into the husks, the nibs, and the germs. The husks and the germs are used for other things, but the nibs will be ground up and made into the chocolate we know and love. Unless, of course, they are packaged as is and delivered to our cupboards.

Nibs smell like a giant mug of super-rich hot chocolate, but their taste is very bitter. Even more bitter than dark chocolate, since at this point in the cacao bean's life no sugar or sweeteners have been added. Depending on the extent to which the nibs have been roasted, you can pick up bright fruity and toasted nut flavors within the bitterness.

They look like a cross between coffee beans and chopped nuts, and the nibs have a correspondingly delicate crunchy texture. They can be used just as they are with no further cooking or roasting.

The bitter chocolate flavor is definitely intense, trained as we are to expect at least a little sweetness from our chocolate. To start with, try simply sprinkling nibs over the tops of baked goods just before they go in the oven. This will give you a little nibby flavor without the risk of it being overwhelming. If you find yourself liking it, move on to adding a scoop or two of nibs to the batter itself, with or in place of chocolate chips.

Nibs can be used in more than just baked goods, of course. You can use them in granola, add them to ice cream, blend them into smoothies, or use them to infuse cream. In fact, if you're a homebrewer, nibs are a fantastic ingredient for making a killer mocha stout. On the savory side of things, you can grind the nibs into a powder and use it as a rub for meat or to add depth to a braising sauce.

Here are a few more ideas for you:

Strawberry Ice Cream with Cacao Nibs
Chevre with Black Sea Salt and Cacao Nibs
Velvety Beet and Cocoa Cake
Nibby Buckwheat Cookies from 101 Cookbooks
Cacao Nib and Fennel Encrusted Pork Tenderloin from NPR
Cacao Nib Gelato from Bon Appétit

Look for cacao nibs at Whole Foods and natural food stores. Or you can order online from places like Taza Chocolate (a personal favorite!) or Amazon:

Organic Roasted Cacao Nibs, $10.50 from TazaNavitas Naturals Cacao Nibs, $8.55 from Amazon

What do you do with cacao nibs?

Related: Looking for Great Savory Recipes with Chocolate

(Image: Emma Christensen)

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