What Is Chicory? Benefits, Uses, & Recipes

Chicory in a mug next to spoon and flowers

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Chicory is a caffeine-free herb that is a popular coffee substitute. It is most well known in New Orleans coffee (or "chicory coffee") recipes, and it can be brewed and enjoyed on its own for its dark, rich flavor. If you want to enjoy a coffeelike experience without turning to decaf, chicory is one of your best options. The flavor is very similar to regular coffee, and because chicory naturally contains no caffeine, it appeals to a healthier, all-natural lifestyle.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: Native to northern Africa, western Asia, and Europe; brought to North America in the 1700s
  • Alternative Names: Chickory, chikory, or chicorie; also known as New Orleans coffee
  • Temperature: Boiling water, 212 F
  • Caffeine: Chicory root is naturally caffeine free; if mixed with coffee, it will contain caffeine

What Is Chicory?

Chicory comes from the chicory plant (Cichorium intybus), a hardy perennial with purplish blue flowers that open and close at the same time each day. It is common in North America and Europe. Chicory is also known as chicory root, curly endive, and succory. Although chicory leaves and flowers are used in food, the chicory root is what is used to make "chicory."

  • The flowers and leaves may be used in salads and flavored vinegars. They are also used in healing tonics in some parts of the world. 
  • Each chicory plant has a single, long, thick root (known as a taproot).
  • Chicory root is roasted before it is brewed, but it can also be boiled and eaten like a vegetable.

Health Benefits of Chicory

Chicory is generally thought to be healthy. Ease into your introduction to chicory and, just like coffee, try not to drink too much at one time.

Chicory is naturally caffeine free, so if you have an issue with caffeine addiction or caffeine overdose, drinking chicory can be a good way to reduce or eliminate caffeine intake in your diet. Chicory is also reported to kill intestinal parasites (or act as a vermifuge), cleanse the blood, and improve liver health. At the same time, some people have found that too much chicory can cause stomach problems.

Uses

Chicory is one of the oldest recorded types of plants. It is native to northern Africa, western Asia, and Europe, and its cultivation is thought to have originated in Egypt in ancient times. Later, chicory was grown by Medieval monks in Europe, and at the same time, it was commonly added to coffee by the Dutch. It was brought to North America in the 1700s. Chicory has been a popular coffee substitute or ingredient in coffee in France since about 1800.

More recently, chicory consumption has been associated with embargoes and cost cutting. Throughout history, substitutes have been used when coffee was unavailable, including roasted acorns, yams, and a variety of local grains. Chicory tends to be the preferred coffee substitute. In some circles, it is even used when coffee is available and cheap.

One historical and cultural example of chicory's use as a coffee substitute is found in New Orleans. Due in part to its influences from French culture, New Orleans was a major consumer of coffee prior to the Civil War. Then, in 1840, coffee importation to the New Orleans harbor was blocked. Taking a cue from their French roots, locals began to use chicory instead.

Today, chicory remains popular in New Orleans, and "New Orleans coffee" typically refers to chicory coffee. New Orleans coffee vendors often blend their coffee with up to 30 percent chicory root. For cost-cutting reasons (and perhaps for safety concerns), chicory is also used as a coffee substitute in many U.S. prisons.

How to Drink Chicory

To make chicory root into an edible (or, technically, potable) substance, the root is pulled up from the ground, washed, dried, roasted, finely cut, and then steeped or brewed. The process gives chicory a roasted flavor roughly akin to that of coffee, and this is its primary appeal in drinks. 

After chicory root is roasted and cut up (or, as some say, "ground," though this is technically incorrect), it is ready to be steeped or brewed. Chicory is more water soluble than coffee, which means you need to use a lot less of it when brewing it with or instead of coffee. 

Since chicory is usually much cheaper than coffee, it's a great substitute if you're on a tight budget. Over-brewing chicory will definitely place you in the anti-chicory camp, so be careful not to use too much or you will ruin the flavor. Begin with 1/2 teaspoon of chicory for every cup you brew and adjust according to your taste.

Caffeine Content in Chicory

Chicory contains no caffeine. If you consume it mixed with coffee, you'll get the caffeine effects from the coffee portion of the drink.

Buying and Storing

Fresh chicory root can sometimes be found at farmers markets but can be hard to locate. Dried, roasted, and ground chicory root can be purchased in bags from health food stores or online retailers. It costs about $10 for a 16-ounce bag. Coffee and chicory blends are sold in some grocery stores, specialty food stores, and online vendors. The most famous brand is Café Du Monde Coffee and Chicory, which hails from a well-known New Orleans bakery. The distinctive 15-ounce orange tin sells for around $8 to $10. Store the chicory coffee as you would regular ground coffee, in a sealed container.

Recipes

Here are some of the many ways to enjoy chicory in your drinks: 

  • To brew basic chicory coffee, use about 2/3 ground coffee and 1/3 chicory. Brew as you normally would in a drip coffee maker, a French press, or your favorite method. 
  • Enjoy chicory on its own by brewing it as you would any other coffee but begin with at least half the grounds. Add spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, or star anise for more flavor.
  • New Orleans Cafe Noir is a popular recipe for New Orleans-style black coffee. New Orleans cafe au lait adds some lightly scalded or steamed milk to the beverage.
  • You can also use chicory to add a coffee flavor to various foods like chili or brownies.