Chocolate bars may get all the taste-off attention, but what about their mother ship, the cocoa nib? They've long made appearances on pastry menus and been sprinkled on handmade chocolates and their candy cousins, but we've been spying them with increasing regularity at local markets for home confectioners. Pretty much every Whole Foods carries Scharffen Berger cocoa nibs these days, as do several other high-end markets. Like most, they are a hodgepodge of various cocoa beans with no particular pedigree.
Then we spotted Amano cocoa nibs at a local specialty shop. Amano's nibs are made by a Utah chocolatier who specializes -- obsesses, really -- in single varietal chocolates made from beans that are sourced from small, carefully edited farms. His cocoa nibs are also sold as single varietals, a rare sighting in the nib world. They're also more expensive than the Scharffen Berger nibs. In other words, we now had the perfect excuse to finally pull out those chocolate molds that have been accumulating dust in our cupboards (thank you, Ewald Notter). So, are single varietal nibs worth the extra dollars? Turn the page for the results.
The Main Contender: Cocoa nibs are roasted cocoa beans that have been separated from their husk and then crushed. In theory, they have an intense crunch and noticeable chocolatey flavor. In fact, that's pretty much all the Scharffen Berger package tells us, other than the inevitable product placement tips (use cocoa nibs in cookies, sprinkle them on ice cream or use them in place of nuts in baking recipes).
It turns out all cocoa nibs are not crushed equally. The Scharffen Berger nibs were small and very uniform in size -- too uniform in that machine-evident sort of way that affects not only texture, but flavor. These nibs had little more than a very faint chocolate essence. Suitable if baked into something for added crunch, but nothing memorable.
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About $8 at most Whole Foods and well-stocked specialty markets like The Wine Exchange in Orange.
The Small Batch Opponent: Sharp edges and sporadic sizes aren't exactly positive PR terms for most food products, but with cocoa nibs that texture is essential. The Amano nibs had noticeably more crunch than the Scharffen Berger nibs and were miles apart in terms of flavor. Chocolatey, with an intense coffee vibe, these little guys were good enough to eat on their own. So good, we've finished half the box without baking them into a single dessert. They also tasted much fresher than those from Scharffen Berger. Note: We tasted the Barlovento nibs (see "online" link below); The company also sells two other single varietal nibs, the Accra and Ocumare (available at Wally's).
The Winner: Amano, by a landslide. Who knew cocoa nibs could be so mysterious, alluring and addictive.