When April 20 rolls around, thousands of people across the United States will roll up a joint in celebration of what has become an unofficial high holiday. More adventurous spirits in the kitchen will infuse marijuana into their food.
Call it 4/20 or 420, the date signifies a time to honor the joys of pot, weed, marijuana, herb, ganja, grass, skunk, wacky tobacky, bud, broccoli, reefer, mary jane, cannabis — whatever you like calling it. The official origin of 420 stems from the time of day when a bunch of high school stoners in San Rafael, California, would meet up to toke up. They used the number as their code during school hours. Rumors have circulated for decades that the number had to do with Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, or a police code for marijuana possession.
Oh, how times have changed.
Evolution of the Marijuana Industry … with Food
Cooking with those THC-filled weeds is not such a far-out idea anymore. Think beyond those pot brownies from back in the day or the space cakes your cousin (or you) tried in Amsterdam. Legal marijuana is one of the fastest growing U.S. industries, estimated to reach $22 billion by 2020, according to the BBC.
Marijuana is going mainstream.
As of November 9, 2016, the use of both recreational and medicinal marijuana has been legalized in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. States are allowed to decriminalize cannabis for recreational or medical use as long as there are still some regulations, although the use, possession, sale, cultivation, and transportation of cannabis is illegal under U.S. federal law, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
In many states, possession of marijuana is still a felony or illegal in a lesser way, so if you live there, sorry. Save this article. It might not be too long before you can legally include marijuana in your spice rack. And as always, it doesn't hurt to consult your doctor when putting anything new into your body.
Pot has grown stronger over the last few decades as people adapt to it, particularly on the West Coast (there are more than 53,000 cannabis farms in California alone), so it's important to know how potent a particular strain is. That's brought about a new number-based holiday: July 10. Look at 710 upside down, and it reads as "oil." Instead of the bud, fans and patients are seeking more concentrated forms of cannabis, such as cannabis-infused oils and tinctures.
A Cannabis Supper Club
Voting for legal medical marijuana in 1996, California has long been on the forefront of the grassroots (ha!) movement to make weed more accessible. On the culinary level, that's where Chef Coreen Carroll suits up. A graduate of the San Francisco Culinary School and a veteran of craft-food making at a butchery, a cheese shop, and bakeries, Carroll's edibles won the High Times Cannabis Cup in San Francisco, and her cannabis cooking skills have drawn the likes of the Discovery Channel and Business Journal. In 2015, Carroll and her fiancé Ryan Bush founded the Cannaisseur Series, a culinary and cannabis experience, like a traveling supper club.
"For me, it's a challenge not to just use the THC component, but the leaves and the rest of the plant for its flavor. To use it as another ingredient in cooking," Carroll says.
The uncured, raw plant, especially the leaves, have no psychoactive effect. "It's an herb, and each version has its own profile flavor like rosemary, lavender, cinnamon. We can use the leaves, stems, and bud," Carroll says.
Like the difference between baby kale and its mature version, cannabis leaves offer different textures and tastes. When harvested young, the leaves are thin and delicate. Older leaves have a chew to them. The particular plant strain, where the plant is grown, the way it's grown, and how it's dried all influence flavor and call for different uses. Carroll sometimes throws the leaves into a salad, but more often she chops the leaves for a vinaigrette, a batter, or with pasta like gnocchi.
"That's why I'm excited about what we're doing at Cannaisseurs," Carroll says. "Most others do only infusions."
The pop-up dinners invite pre-screened guests to enjoy mildly cannabis-infused hors d’oeuvres like a fermented coconut yogurt with honeycomb and fennel pollen or spicy pickled kumquat with ricotta crostini. Sip on lightly cannabis-infused mocktails before dinner too, followed by a multi-course meal that incorporates the non-psychoactive components of the plant. The courses can be paired with intermezzos of cannabis flower, edibles, and extracts from California’s finest purveyors. Beer and wine are usually available during dinner.
Don't Make These Common Cannabis Cooking Mistakes
If you’re hoping for some edibles that get you high, however, it’s best to decarboxylate your cannabis before you begin the cooking process, according to Herb. Decarboxylation activates the THC, and you do it with heat.
- That's the most common mistake people make when cooking with cannabis. "The one big thing that almost everybody screws up is that they just take bud or flower, crumble it up, and put it into the butter. You're not activating the THC-A, the acid form of cannabis that way. You won't feel any high," Carroll says. To activate the THC, you need to have dried, aged bud that's felt the heat. Crumble up the buds and spread them out on a baking sheet or tray. Heat the buds in the oven at about 240 degrees F for about 40 minutes to dry out. "It gives it a higher potency," she says.
- Another big no-no with your nugs: Once you have your cannabis-infused butter or oil made, don't recook it. The THC burns off somewhere between 320 and 350 degrees F. If you're baking cookies over 300 degrees F, be aware you're cooking off the THC. So if you're adding your infused olive oil into a marinara sauce, pour it in at the end of the sauce's cooking time.
- You can mess up by heating your olive oil too much when you're infusing your herb into it. Remember, extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, so if it reaches 325 to 375 degrees F, it will smell and taste burnt and rancid. Butter and coconut oil both hold their flavor until around 350 degrees F. Many other oils can handle between 400 and 450 degrees F, such as sunflower oil, avocado oil, peanut oil, canola oil, and especially safflower oil, the last reaching 500 degrees F.
Become a Ganja Gourmet
When Carroll teaches a Cooking with Cannabis 101 workshop, one of her starter recipes is Nugtella, a play on the name of that famous chocolate-hazelnut spread, Nutella. "People love that one because it's so easy. And you put it on anything, from strawberries to morning toast," Carroll says. So when you're still new to cooking with cannabis, be creative yet also start small.
But first, you need to create the basic ingredient to add into your food. To pack THC power in your dish, you need to infuse a fat with your de-carbed bud. Butter and coconut oil are Carroll's favorites.
There are many ways to infuse. Carroll's method uses direct heat and a water bath. She heats a pot of water at low temperature — never boil — and adds a 4-to-1 ratio of cannabis to butter into the heated water, letting it simmer for about two hours. Then she strains it, and washes the buds with more hot water, an extra step to draw out every bit of THC she can. Then the strained mixture sits in fridge for 24 to 48 hours. Once the water and butter have separated and hardened, Carroll takes the hardened buttery top layer off and melts it again so she can pour it into a container to seal and freeze. Carroll makes her butter so green and potent that she only needs a tiny bit for her recipes.
Other chefs like to sous vide the bud and butter in a glass jar for about two hours.
Make sure to label your container and date it. The oil will keep for six months in the fridge, and the butter will taste fresh up to a year in the freezer. Then, whenever you want to serve a more "elevated" snack or meal that can incorporate butter or oil (not heated to high temperature!), go for it. You're prepared.
Experiment. Any pot head or even an occasional toker will tell you that different cannabis plants have different flavors. So see what your current batch smells and tastes like and work from there. Carroll often cooks from the plants she grows, such as her most recent Sunset Sherbet strain, which has cinnamon-cardamom undertones and tastes great in a chai-chocolate sorbet.
"The possibilities are endless. They're like a whole other food ingredient. I don't think there is another plant that has so much versatility and such varied flavor profiles. They're always coming out with new strains: One can taste like cinnamon and that other one, like licorice," Carroll says. "It's always changing and keeps us on our toes. I don't think I can learn it all in my lifetime."
Need more ideas? Check out our 15 Best Foods with Weed in Them. If you want to smoke, dab, or vaporize your cannabis rather than eat it, you'll still be hungry afterward. Try our suggestions for 4/20 munchies.
— Head Image: Ryan Bunch and Coreen Carroll, co-founders of the Cannaisseur Series.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.