During the lengthy chocolate making stage there’s a process called winnowing which removes the outer shell of the cocoa bean to leave the central part which contains the natural acids and fats which, when processed some more, give chocolate its distinctive flavour. During this separation process it is beneficial to keep these nibs or cotyledons as they’re more technically called, in a fairly large form so they can be separated easily from the shell. These nibs are about half fat and are hence much denser than the shell so by vibrating separated.
Essentially there are three main ways of making chocolate; you can roast the whole beans and then winnow; winnow, roast and grind; or winnow grind and roast. There are pros and cons of each but it is important to know as if you are buying bags of cocoa nibs then you may want to know if your nibs have been roasted or not – as that affects the flavour and the ‘health benefits’ some may claim.
During the roasting processes many of the astringent, volatile acids are removed, whilst many others aren’t. This serves to reduce the bitterness of the nib and make it more palatable. What’s more, during the roasting process and during what’s called the Maillard reaction much the natural proteins are turned in amino acids which then give chocolate its characteristic flavour.
What do they taste like?
Just as different chocolate bars with the same beans can taste wildly different, there’s still an opportunity for cocoa nibs to taste different. There are some general characteristics however. To me, at least, they have a sweet and sour flavour. There is a very small amount of natural sugar present in chocolate and cocoa nibs. If you take the 100% Grenada chocolate bar, that has 0.3% sugars which are naturally occurring and is why there are issues with labelling chocolate as ‘diabetic chocolate’. But there are those natural acids present which give it a tartness that I and many others find very appealing. There’s a husk, bran like flavour that seems to carry the other two top and bottom notes.
Many people may have tried 90% or 100% chocolate and found that far too bitter for them and may think that cocoa nibs would similarly be as bitter and acute, but cocoa nibs are far milder than the very biter chocolate you can buy. There’s a great deal more depth of flavour present immediately too.
Are cocoa nibs good for you?
Firstly I’m no medical professional so I’m not qualified to make any claims. What I can say however, is that both the Aztecs and Mayans believed their chocolatl version of chocolate had health-enhancing properties. According to Stephen T Beckett in The Science of Chocolate there are some benefits of the cocoa butter in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The flavanols in chocolate have been said to have anti-blood clotting, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which may combat the detrimental effects of free-radicals.
Cocoa nibs also contain caffeine, although less per mg than strong ground or instant coffee. To me, at least, they do provide a noticeable stimulating affect. Interestingly, cocoa nibs also contain theobromine which have been said (by S.T. Beckett) to help treat nervous excitement and insomnia.
There have also been studies that chocolate improves your mood. I’m not sure if they needed to run an expensive study to find that out. If cocoa nibs do, due to the lack of crystalline sugar and highly-processed fats is another matter.
What can I do with cocoa nibs?
Of course they can be eaten raw – as I do. But you can also add them to smoothies, cakes in savoury foods. If you’re in the kitchen baking or cooking then feel free to experiment. They’re good to give a lift to food and provide a more interesting flavour.