As products of the same plant, cacao nibs and cacao powder have a lot in common. The Theobroma cacao tree from which both of them come has been cultivated for thousands of years. Both are nutrient-dense and provide the pure flavor of unprocessed chocolate, which means that they can be fairly bitter. Cacao nibs and powder both provide a range of health-enhancing benefits but despite their similarities, they are considerably different products with very different applications. If you are faced with making a choice between them, you will need to consider factors like the ways that they differ and the best ways to use each of them.
How do cacao nibs differ from cacao powder?
The difference between cacao nibs and cacao powder has more to do with form rather than content. Cacao nibs and cacao powder are made from the beans of the Theobroma cacao plant. Cacao is an Olmec word for what English speakers refer to as cocoa. The fruit of this plant consists of a pod containing beans. The pods are cracked open and the beans removed to be processed into the cocoa that you will find in most grocery stores. Processing typically involves fermentation and roasting. Cacao nibs are made from chopping up beans that have been fermented and dried but not roasted. Cacao powder is made by pulverizing the cacao nibs to powder.
It should be noted that the term cacao is often used specifically to denote the raw form of the bean. Cacao nibs and cacao powder are supposed to be unroasted, but just how raw they are is the subject of some controversy. Cacao beans are cold-pressed to remove their cocoa butter; the temperature during processing is not supposed to exceed 104 degrees Fahrenheit so as to preserve the enzymes and other nutritional benefits. The controversy arises from the fact that just the fermentation process alone can cause them to get to considerably higher temperatures.
Another difference is the cost as cacao nibs tend to be a little more expensive than cacao powder.
Can you use one in the place of the other?
While cacao nibs may be used in some recipes that require cocoa powder, you probably will not get the same effect from them. Since cacao nibs are the whole form of cacao powder, you can make them into cacao powder simply by grinding them. This can be done with a food processor or a coffee grinder. By doing this, you can use cacao nibs in any preparation that requires cacao powder.
Cacao powder will not provide the same effect that you would get from cacao nibs as the nibs are larger pieces of the cacao bean. Cacao powder is not a good substitute in recipes that specify nibs.
When should you use cacao nibs and when should you use cacao powder?
Cacao nibs are closer in appearance and texture to chocolate chips, but without the fats and sugars that chips usually contain. As a result, they are best used as a healthier chocolate chip alternative in desserts like chocolate chip cookies; you can also use them in oatmeal and smoothies. Cacao powder can be used in most of the applications for which cocoa powder would be used. Like cacao nibs, its benefits are that it contains more healthy compounds when compared to cocoa powder. Use cacao powder in paleo desserts, shakes, and smoothies.