Richard is a chocolate maker at our Valencia St. factory, and as a former line cook, he’s been eagerly experimenting with ways to bring cacao husk into his culinary endeavors. Here, he gives us a primer on his most recent adventures: smoking meat and making charcoal with husk! A quick disclaimer: because cocoa beans come straight from farms, there is always the risk of pathogen contamination or heavy metals. Check out our blog post that dives into some of those risks here. The husk that Richard used was from Mantuano, Venezuela, and tested negative for heavy metals and aflotoxins. We very, very strongly encourage you (we’d require it if we were standing in your kitchen) that you know the source of your husk, and check in with your supplier to make sure that it has been tested for contamination. Ok, now that that’s over, let’s smoke!
I’ve always been fascinated with finding uses for things that people typically throw away. I guess this attitude came from growing up with family that spent a few years in a refugee camp, so I grew up with a strong emphasis on not wasting anything. A lot of delicious things have been invented from what was previously considered “scraps” including meatloaf, Vietnamese Pho, and most stews. In our factory, we’ve got no use for cocoa husk (the outer shell of the cocoa bean), other than donating it to local farms to use as mulch. I’ve done a few weird projects with chocolate at home—chocolate milk dumplings (like soup dumplings but with chocolate milk, peanut butter, and banana), and tangyuan, which is like a mochi in a ginger syrup but I made it with chocolate ganache in a cacao nib and ginger syrup. But smoking meat with cacao husks was especially enticing to me because I get to use something we normally throw away. That, and it’s a lot cheaper than buying wood chips. And by cheaper, I mean free (for me).
So, on one of my days off, I drove up to the Valencia St. Factory and came home with a 7-kilogram bag of husk from a batch of beans from Mantuano, Venezuela that was winnowed that day. My mission: to find out if I can, in fact, smoke meat with cacao husk.
So, can you?
You bet! Turns out that it works. Though it doesn’t impart any special chocolatey notes to the meat, it definitely makes for a faint smokey flavor, almost like oak or maple. Now, I am very far from a barbecue master, so I am not familiar with the nuances of different types smoke and how they impart different flavors. I just know that it is possible to smoke with the husk and that the end result tastes pretty good. If anything, it is a convenient alternative to wood chips.
The technique I used to smoke with cacao husk was inspired by Chinese tea-smoking (think tea smoked duck). The typical method for tea-smoking involves wrapping your tea with rice and spices in foil. In this method, you bunch up all your smoking fuel so that it burns a little slower. The low oxygen environment keeps it from igniting and turning to ash. Here, I’ll outline the process that I used with my grill because I don’t have a smoker (yet). If you don’t you have a smoker like me, you can just use a little Weber grill ($30-$40 from Home Depot). If you have a smoker, I imagine you can replace your wood chips with packets of wet cacao husk.
How to smoke with cacao husk:
This is my method for smoking anything using cacao husk, and I recommend using it on brisket or white fish to start, or pork belly—which you’ll find a recipe for below.
Fill foil with a few handfuls of cacao husk and wrap it up.
Poke holes in the foil to allow room for smoke to escape.
Do this to make two larger to three smaller foil packets.
Set Up Your Grill:
Set a metal pan full of water under where the meat will go, this will simultaneously add moisture, catch drippings, and act as a heat sink to keep the temperature consistent as you are smoking your meat.
Light your coals using a charcoal chimney, or any other method you know. Add a bed of unlit coals opposite of where you will grill your meat. Add your lit coals on top of these. Cover and preheat your grill until it reaches roughly 250°F (you’ll want a thermometer here).
Place smoking packet over coals, and place grill rack on. Place meat on grill above the water pan
Stick a lid on the grill with vents above the meat, half open. This creates airflow that will guide the smoke towards the meat you are cooking.
Replace coals every hour or so to maintain temperature and fuel for your grill. If the packet stops smoking replace it with a new one.
After about four hours, begin checking the temperature of your meat with an internal thermometer. Once the meat reaches 145°F, the meat is done. Now take the meat off and let rest.
So far, I’ve only done this the husk from Venezuelan beans, and I’m curious to see if different husks might impart different flavors.
RECIPE: Crispy Smoked Pork Belly with Cacao Husk
1- 1.5 lbs of pork belly, skin on
2-3 foil packets of cacao husk (instructions above)
a few tablespoons of Chinese five spice
Score the skin in cross hatches on the skin side of the pork belly to allow fat to drain out when cooking.
Rub a thin layer of salt and Chinese five spice all over the pork belly.
Heat up coals for the grill in a chimney starter, and prepare smoking packets. Place water pan in the grill, once coals are ready place them on one side next to water pan. Place smoke packet over coals and allow the charcoal grill to preheat until the thermometer reads roughly 225°F.
Place pork belly, skin-side up on the grill above the water pan, and layer more kosher salt on top of the skin. Cover grill let smoke for at least 4-6 hours until the salt has formed a crust and the internal temperature has reached 145°.
Take pork off the grill and remove the salt crust. Preheat oven to 475°F, and bake for another 30 minutes, or until skin is crackly and crispy (alternatively you can place the pork belly under the broiler for 5-10 minutes). That’s it! Enjoy your crispy smoked pork belly.
Bonus! Making Charcoal out of Cacao Husk
One of the byproducts of smoking with cacao is that you get charcoal flakes at the end that you can use later to make charcoal briquettes.
For those who don’t know, charcoal is made by heating high carbon material (typically wood, discarded coconut shells, and other plant materials) in a low oxygen environment so that “impurities,” or anything that isn’t carbon, burn out, and the carbon itself (the charcoal) doesn’t combust and turns to ash.
Normally when people make charcoal, they are looking to make lump charcoal, from whole chunks of wood, especially in more rural areas. I first ran into homemade charcoal when I was staying in Kenya, where the folks I was staying with would essentially light a pile of wood on the fire, then cover it with dirt, so the wood didn’t burn into ash.
Inevitably, you will also end up with little bits of charcoal that break off that are too small to use on their own. Charcoal briquettes are made by grinding up all these extra bits and pieces into a powder and mixing them with a binder (I used cornstarch because that was what I had on-hand), then shaping them into briquettes. They’re basically the hotdogs of the charcoal world.
If you try this, please let me know how it went in the comments below!