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Originally published Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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What are cacao nibs?

Cocoa nibs are showing up as an ingredient in recipes.

The Charlotte Observer

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Q. A chocolate cake recipe called for cacao nibs. What are those? Should I buy them raw or roasted?

A. Cacao nibs aren't new, but they're a new use for something very old. They're broken-up chunks of cacao beans, which are used to make chocolate. They've been around for as long as people have made chocolate, but they've started turning up as an ingredient on their own.

They're a little like chunks of roasted coffee beans, with a similar texture and a slight chocolate flavor. They're usually used to enhance the chocolate flavor in things made with chocolate, such as chocolate bars, although they also turn up in savory dishes, such as salads.

Some sources call cacao nibs "raw chocolate," and health food stores often sell cacao beans labeled as raw. But all cacao beans are at least minimally roasted or sun-dried. Culinary versions usually have been fermented, dried and roasted.

You can order nibs online, but you also can find them in gourmet stores, health-food stores and some well-stocked supermarkets.

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