Nutritious cacao nibs add an intense chocolate flavor to foods along with a soft crunch. They have been used in the chocolate-making process for centuries, but have only recently entered the modern culinary realm as a coveted ingredient on their own. Native to the upper Amazon region, cacao beans today grow around the world in a narrow belt extending 10 degrees on either side of the equator. The main producers are in Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Cote D'Ivore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, but consumers can be found around the world.
What Are Cacao Nibs?
Following the harvest, cacao beans are pulled out of the pods, fermented, and dried. Cacao nibs are simply crushed bits of the meat from those raw cacao beans. Some producers package their products raw, and others roast them before they sell them.
Processing turns raw cacao nibs into cacao paste, butter, and powder for use in chocolate products ranging from bars to sauces to beverages.
How to Use Cacao Nibs
You can use raw or roasted cacao nibs in a variety of dishes, from sweet to savory. A teaspoon or two will add pizzazz to your morning oatmeal, or pump up the flavor in a chocolate smoothie. Top your favorite sundae or parfait with nibs for a flavor and nutrition boost.
Create an easy dessert "bark" by melting 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips along with 1/4 cup peanut butter. Mix in a tablespoon of cacao nibs and spread it onto a silicone mat. Chill it for 20 minutes in the freezer, then break it into chunks for a delicious treat.
The nibs make a great addition to homemade trail mix or granola, or can be eaten alone as a satisfying alternative to chocolate candy when a craving strikes.
For a mole-style flavor, stir them into a tomato-based sauce and allow it to simmer. Then blend the sauce until it's smooth and use it to top pasta or enchiladas.
What Do They Taste Like?
Cacao nibs have the bitter, complex flavor of unsweetened dark chocolate, with a firm but chewy texture similar to roasted coffee beans. Toast raw nibs in a dry skillet before you use them to tame the bitterness and give them a little nuttiness and even more crunch.
Recipes With Cacao Nibs
Use cacao nibs in place of or in addition to chopped nuts, in baked goods, or to garnish any dish that would benefit from a rich, chocolaty flavor.
Where to Buy Cacao Nibs
You can purchase cacao nibs online, and they are also available from many natural foods and specialty shops; they're also starting to show up in well-stocked grocery stores.
Store cacao nibs in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry location; in the right conditions, they can last for several years. Press all of the air out of the package before you reseal it, or transfer the cacao nibs to a sealed glass jar to maintain freshness long-term. Discard them if you see any signs of mold or rot or if the aroma or flavor seems off.
You can freeze cacao nibs, but beware that any moisture in the packaging will compromise the quality.
Nutrition and Benefits
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. A 1-ounce serving (about 3 tablespoons) delivers 190 calories and 15 grams of fat.
Cacao Nibs vs. Cocoa
The words cacao and cocoa can be thought of interchangeably. The cacao bean (actually a seed pod) comes from the Theobroma tree, which is also known as the cacao or cocoa tree. People in Mesoamerica were enjoying the culinary benefits of the cacao tree as far back as 1400 to 1500 BC. Artifacts from ancient Aztecs reveal that a beverage made from cacao beans had been consumed, but it was unsweetened and 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.