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Is chocolate a superfood? Well, it is if you’re referring to the seed from which it is produced, known as raw cacao. Not only does it deliver the flavor so many of us crave, it also possesses a powerhouse of nutrients. It’s chock-full of antioxidants (even more so than goji berries, blueberries and tea), as well as fiber, magnesium and protein. It also happens to be the highest plant-based source of iron.
You’ve likely seen cacao referenced as a percentage on the labels of high-quality chocolate bars (i.e. “75% cacao”). The higher the percentage, the more bitter the chocolate. It also means that more of the bar is actually comprised of chocolate, as opposed to sugar, fat and other fillers. So you can only imagine how rich these Bittersweet Chocolate Tortes are!
But what is cacao, exactly, and how do you go about using it? We demystify the bean below and provide a number of cacao recipes to explore.
Essentially chocolate in its raw, purest form, cacao is derived from the seeds (also known as cacao beans) that come from the pods of the Theobroma cacao fruit tree. The cacao tree is primarily grown and harvested in Central and South American countries, like Indonesia, Nigeria, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Malaysia and the Ivory Coast. It’s then harvested and processed into various forms including cacao nibs, cacao powder, cacao butter and paste, which represent the products you typically can find in the stores. All forms of cacao, and raw cacao, are called for in a wide variety of cacao recipes.
Cacao nibs (sometimes mistakenly called cocoa nibs) are dried and fermented cacao seeds that have been chopped into pieces. They are bitter and nutty, and have a texture similar to roasted coffee beans.
Sort of like smoky, unsweetened chocolate chips, cacao nibs add a great crunch to yogurt and grain bowls, trail mixes and cereals, puddings and baked goods. They’re a great topping for ice cream, and can be made into the Mexican, chocolate-based sauce known as mole.
This is the pure, cold-pressed oil that is extracted after fermenting and roasting cacao beans. It’s rich, soft and creamy with a velvety chocolate flavor, and contains good-for-you fats like omega-3’s.
The fact that it can be chopped, shredded or melted makes cacao butter incredibly easy to use. And it’s versatile too, since it can be added anywhere you’d use oil, in recipes that would benefit from a jolt of chocolate flavor. Its uses aren’t only edible either! In fact, cacao (or cocoa) butter is a popular product for healing and moisturizing skin.
Also called cacao liquor (not to be confused with the alcoholic distillation of cacao beans, used in chocolatey cocktails like this crème de cacao recipe), cacao paste is made by crushing whole, raw beans into a liquid that semi-solidifies. It then becomes an unsweetened paste composed of about 55% cacao butter.
It’s similar to unsweetened baking chocolate, and can be used as such...folded into brownie batter, cake mixes or frosting.
The fine powder created after all of the fatty and buttery components of the raw cacao bean have been stripped away, cacao powder is a healthier, nutrient-rich alternative to highly processed cocoa.
Cacao powder benefits include the same nutrient-dense profile as other processed forms of cacao, and it creates dozens of cacao drink recipes. A great swap-in wherever you’d use processed cocoa powder, you can make a mocha by adding it to coffee, mixing it in a cacao smoothie, swapping coffee beans with cacao beans for brewed cacao, or of course, turning it into rich and dark hot chocolate. Which brings us to the million-dollar question...
Is cacao and cocoa the same thing? What’s the actual difference here, save for the switching up of a few letters? Both products come from the same plant, so the biggest difference between cocoa and cacao comes down to the processing. Cacao is completely raw, natural and unprocessed, while cocoa is created much further down the line. Generally referring to powder (while cacao can come in any of the basic forms described above), the cocoa-making process entails applying high levels of heat to pure cacao, which removes many of its beneficial nutrients. It’s often also supplemented with sugar, oil or milk fat.