There’s so much more to your artisanal chocolate bar than salted caramel and a pinch of chili powder. Travel the rich, delicious road from bean to bar with Making Chocolate, by the dedicated chocolatiers from San Francisco’s famed Dandelion Chocolate. You know you love their flavor and texture, but do you know how to use cacao nibs in the kitchen? Read on to find out.
At first, I was shy with nibs. They were new to me, like little roasted nuts that occasionally tasted of orangey acid or coffee. How do you work with that? At first, I used them lightly — sprinkled on tarts or scones — but over the last few years, I’ve discovered that there’s just about nothing you can’t do with them. Seriously, I’ve tried. I threw them in cookies, on scones, in every blended drink. They brought crunch to soft scones and whispers of their flavor — earthy, toasty, fruity, and the rest — to blended drinks. And then, my epiphanic moment: I steeped them in hot cream. The cream took up the flavor of the nibs, and a spoonful of the buttery white cream tasted like straight milk chocolate. I was in love.
Nibs are a great creative catalyst in our kitchen, and we love them so much that I even baptized my laptop “Nibby Baby J.” The way to ease into baking with nibs is to use them like nuts — sometimes they actually taste like nuts, but roastier and more complex. And they’ll add a similar texture and flavor component to whatever you’re working with. If you pair them with nuts, sometimes it will accentuate the nuttiness of the real nuts, the way it does with the almonds and hazelnuts in our Nibby Horchata. But the best way to start peppering them into your kitchen repertoire is to consider nibs in terms of the two things they offer: flavor and texture. Most of the time — unless you’re infusing or extracting flavor — they’ll add both of these things to a dish, but there are some ways to capitalize on either in your strategy.
On their own, nibs are firm but a little chewy, like almonds, and they’ll add that texture to whatever you’re working on. I love the crunch they bring to a soft, buttery scone or a piece of toffee. I like mixing them into the middle of a soft cookie, and they bring a beautiful balance to the greens, soft cheeses, and fruits in a summer salad. You can even throw them on top of roasted vegetables, like squash, or bake them right into a loaf of sourdough. To start, experiment by pairing them with opposing textures: creamy yogurt, soft muffins, or a dense truffle filled with ganache.
And those are just the whole nibs. For different levels of that texture, you can chop and grind them down to any coarseness that you want, as long as you stop short of liquefying them (which can happen quickly if you walk away). To chop them, just take a knife and chop as you would a pile of nuts. To grind them, use a spice grinder, food processor, or blender to pulverize them into a dust. Use short pulses, and stop before making them liquidy, which you’ll recognize by the way they start to clump up, release their fat, and look wet.
Chopping up or grinding nibs subdues their crunch and unleashes a little more flavor by opening up surface area. Chopped up, use them in the same way you would whole nibs, but for a softer impact. As a dust, they’ll add a pleasant kind of grittiness — like masa in a Mexican atole, or very fine polenta — to drinks. Alternatively, just toss them in the blender with your smoothie or milk shake for a little bit of toothy deliciousness.
The intensity of nibs’ flavor depends on how you use them. Nibs run the flavor gamut from chocolatey and earthy to astringent and bitter, to nutty, milky, winelike, spicy, and beyond. It all depends on their origin. They are the kernels of chocolate flavor, and without sugar or other ingredients to dilute them, their flavor can be strong. But they’re incredibly versatile, too; chocolate is sweet, but nibs are not, and they’re just as comfortable ground up and stirred into salad dressing as they are sprinkled on streusel.
To familiarize yourself with the flavor of nibs, you can eat them whole, but they’ll hit your palate with more intensity if you grind them up into dust or cocoa liquor. You can also release their aroma and flavor by steeping a handful in hot water. In fact, that’s a great way to compare different origins’ flavors side by side. To extract their pure flavor, infuse nibs in warm dairy or alcohol. They’ll leave a surprisingly intense flavor behind. That day I steeped them in hot cream was the first time I truly understood their flavor potential. I was making Nibby Panna Cotta, which is a delicious, surreal dream of a dessert that looks like vanilla pudding but tastes like chocolate. Anytime you add nibs to warm milk or cream, you’ll get that same effect. You can also think about steeping them in an ice cream base, or in whiskey or gin. We’ve been known to make a nibby bourbon for cocktails, and it tastes a bit like there are cocoa bitters in there. Fat and alcohol are the best ways to extract the flavor of nibs, so scheme accordingly.
As far as strategy goes, think about complementing or contrasting the flavor of your nibs. You might pair bright, fruity nibs with strawberries, black currants, and balsamic vinegar in a summer salad, or with berries in a coffee cake. For contrast, you might use them to add a fruity bite to otherwise mellow desserts, like vanilla bread pudding or crème brûlée. More neutral nibs, with chocolatey, earthy, or nutty notes, might help to balance tart apples in a cobbler or add more depth to a classic brownie.
We also love to candy the nibs in our kitchen; it turns them into a shiny and beautiful garnish, and takes the bitterness out if there is any. We cook them in simple syrup at a rolling boil for 20 minutes, drain them, let them dry, and then deep-fry them to add some crunch.
Nibs are right at home on a savory menu, too. Grind them up and rub them on a protein like steak or duck. Depending on their own flavor, they’ll mix with any spice and herb—cinnamon, allspice, fennel, anise, thyme, rosemary. I’ve seen them on a lamb sausage pizza and ground into salad dressing. Use them anywhere you want to add some roasted, earthy, nutty dimensionality.