"The texture is unique—crunchy yet tender, like a macadamia nut, with the mouth-cooling properties bestowed by the magical substance that is cocoa butter."
They're showing up in more places than ever: baked in fancy restaurant desserts, folded into ice cream, and even lining the shelves of grocery stores. But their exact origin and nature is still something of a mystery to many people. I'm talking about cocoa nibs.
What are cocoa nibs? In case you missed my post about how chocolate is made from bean to bar (or if you need a refresher): nibs are bits of fermented, dried, roasted and crushed cacao bean. That's it! Nibs you buy in a health food or gourmet grocery store are just chocolate that hasn't been ground and mixed with sugar yet. They're extremely good for you, and have an intense chocolatey taste, but aren't sweet at all.
Personally, I think cocoa nibs are delicious. The texture is unique—crunchy yet tender, like a macadamia nut, with the mouth-cooling properties bestowed by the magical substance that is cocoa butter; and complex, with a bitter cocoa flavor. The flavor takes a little getting used to, and there are certainly a wide range of qualities of nibs (as there are with anything). If you're already a chocolate lover, chances are you'll be into nibs.
But what do you do with them?
Turns out a heck of a lot!
First there are the obvious things: using them as sprinkles on cupcakes or ice cream; mixing them into cookies like Dorie Greenspan's world peace cookies; or tossing them into brittle instead of nuts.
Simply candying them—coating them in caramelized sugar—is simple, and candied cocoa nibs make a delicious (though somewhat addictive) snack. Candied cocoa nibs can also be used in baked goods (I'd have no problem stirring them into a batch of granola), or enrobed in chocolate for an extra-decadent treat.
But cocoa nibs have a savory side, too, and who better to write about it than pastry wizard and self-proclaimed chocolate freak David Lebovitz? He has a recipe for a gorgeous-looking shallot and beer marmalade, which includes a cocoa nibs addition. I've never made this recipe (although now I'm wondering why) but it looks divine. He suggests pairing it with savories like fresh goat cheese, or as a side for a tagine.
Lebovitz has another recipe for Cocoa Nib and Spiced Lamb Sausage Pizza, which sounds pretty darn good, too. And Michael Chiarello did a Food Network show a while back that featured an entire dinner menu chock-full of chocolate, with nibs showing up in the salad. Cocoa nibs are also a great choice for a crust on something savory, like a duck breast; or even fried calamari. Am I the only one who's getting hungry?
Back to Sweet
Of course, if you're not feeling quite so adventurous, there are plenty of other, sweeter ways to have your nibs. Brooklyn-based NuNu Chocolates makes some delightful chocolate-covered nibs, which are a nice "starter" nib snack. And since we all know that the less processed the cocoa is, the more antioxidants it contains (and thus the better it is for you), Fine + Raw's 78% + Nibs bar is a good choice for the health nut. Thankfully, it also happens to be quite tasty.
As far as classic pastry goes, nibs are something of an upstart—they tend to be relegated to the garnish category (at least in the restaurant desserts I've tried, but to be fair, I don't get out much). The bite of nibs challenges the more refined sensibility of European pastry, where texture tends towards the-smoother-the-better. I also quite like the look of this buckwheat-cocoa nib panna cotta over at pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon's blog eggbeater.
Again, I defer to you, dear readers. What have I missed? Where's the best nib-related treat in your hood? How do you incorporate nibs into your favorite recipes?
About the author: Liz Gutman co-owns the Brooklyn-based candy business Liddabit Sweets, which means she spends a lot of time around chocolate (and a lot of time eating it). She moved to New York in 2001 to go to, wait for it, acting school. But when the acting life wasn't for her, she wound up in the French Culinary Institute's pastry program while working at Roni-Sue's Chocolates in Manhattan's Lower East Side. She befriended Jen King, aka the other half of Liddabit, at FCI and founded Liddabit in May of 2009.