Almost everyone is familiar with cocoa, especially when transformed into a delectable chocolate bar-- but what is cacao? And, even more importantly, what is a cacao nib? Simply stated, the terms cacao and cocoa can be thought of interchangeably.
Cacao nibs have been growing in popularity over the past several years in the modern culinary sphere, and for good reason: they are deliciously nutritious little morsels that not only add an intense chocolate flavor to foods but also a subtle crunch!
You can purchase cacao nibs online, and they are also available from many natural foods and specialty shops. I've even seen them at numerous chain grocery stores along the East Coast. Cacao nibs have all the benefits of eating dark chocolate, without the added sugar. They are high in fiber, protein, and antioxidants, and contain the same mood-boosting chemicals and lipids that make a bar of dark chocolate so darn satisfying.
Cacao nibs are very minimally processed and derive from the cocoa or cacao bean (actually a seed pod) which comes from the Theobroma tree (also known as the cacao or cocoa tree). People have been enjoying the culinary benefits of the cacao tree since around 1400 to 1500 BC in Mesoamerica. Artifacts from ancient Aztecs reveal that a beverage made from cocoa beans had been consumed, but it was much different than the hot cocoa beverage we think of today. Cacao beans were also used as currency across Mesoamerica, prior to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.
Cacao nibs are simply a part of the cacao seed, or bean, that has been harvested, fermented, dried, cleaned, roasted, cracked, and then removed from the shell. This results in cacao nibs, which are ready to enjoy as is, or more often ground into a smooth paste which is known as chocolate liquor a very important ingredient in chocolate making.
So now that we know what cacao nibs are, what can we do with them?
- Use cacao nibs in a variety of dishes, from sweet to savory.
- Add some pizzazz to your morning oatmeal by adding a teaspoon or two of cocoa nibs for a fun texture and chocolate boost.
- Put a few tablespoons into a chocolate smoothie to make it even more chocolaty!
- Create an easy dessert by melting 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips along with 1/4 cup peanut butter--mix in a tablespoon of cocoa nibs and spread onto a silicone mat. Chill for 20 minutes in the freezer for a delicious treat!
- The nibs are a great addition to homemade trail mix, granola, or eaten alone as a satisfying alternative to chocolate candy when a craving strikes.
- Top your favorite sundae or parfait with nibs to give them a nutritional boost.
- Stir them in a delicious tomato based sauce and allow to simmer. Once cooked, blend them in a blender until smooth and use as a pasta or enchilada sauce.