cannabis chef

Head Chef: Here’s Why These Kitchen Whizzes Grow Their Own Weed

Before we saw the seven-pointed leaf as a symbol of the counterculture movement, cannabis was just another plant that nature provided humankind.

However, we now know that cannabis is capable of doing so much that we don’t yet even have a handle on all the plant’s potential, which spans building materials to textiles, medicine to beauty.

Of course, it’s also edible in many forms, whether medically, nutritionally or recreationally speaking. Infused into liquids or consumed raw, cannabis has a flavor and benefit portfolio that we’re only now getting acquainted with.

And cuisine professionals everywhere — whether innovative chefs, food writers or gourmands — are getting increasingly creative when it comes to these marijuana-based dishes, drinks and treats. It’s these culinary experts who are leading the exploration into the brave new world of canna cuisine, growing their own “produce” to infuse in dishes.

Why Is Homegrown Cannabis Better For Cooking?

For many cannabis chefs, it’s all about total control. Many feel they simply can’t count on commercial offerings to meet their high standards, or they’re constantly changing up their cannabis-centric menus and need access to strains that will pair well with that particular dish.

Jeff Danzer, also known as JeffThe420Chef, admits he’s seen the quality of commercial cannabis slip in some pretty telling ways. He tells Big Buds, “I’ve been growing my own cannabis since I got my medical recommendation in 2012. I found out early on that the cannabis I was buying at dispensaries was not always the cleanest and not always cultivated or handled properly.”

In the early days of legalized medical cannabis, dispensaries were not necessarily held to the strict regulations and standards they are today. “I found mold growing on product I purchased from a ‘reputable’ dispensary and a small caterpillar embedded in a bud from another dispensary,” Danzer recalls. “At the same time, I was reading studies that were showing that a lot of cannabis was contaminated with mold, fungus, bacteria and pesticides.”

At the time of launching his cannabis career, Danzer figured, “If I can grow my own cannabis, I can control all of that and have the cleanest cannabis to cook with. I also realized that I could use other parts of the plant, like the fan leaves, for cooking. Growing cannabis opened up a new world of culinary exploration for me.”

Liz Crain, co-author of Grow Your Own and Hello! My Name Is Tasty, is a Portland-based food writer and editor who grows, collects and ferments her own food products. With Crain sharing generously on social media everything from her yard-grown cannabis plants to her latest culinary experiments and seasonal prep rituals, her intimate relationship with food sourced from the soil runs deep.

“In Grow Your Own, we focus on getting the reader everything she needs for a successful small-to-mid-sized, one-to-four lights indoor home grow — but all of the concepts and techniques laid out for indoor apply to outdoor gardens as well.”

The very notion that you can grow a consumable garden’s worth of cannabis that’ll last you an entire year of distinct kitchen creations is not lost on most people on the West Coast, and if you possess a successful green thumb pointed firmly at fruits and vegetables, with some guidance, you can adapt that garden know-how to include fortuitous cannabis growing.

Indeed, Crain’s exemplary green thumb has saved many a plant in danger, including her own cannabis plants.

“Since 2016, I’ve been growing a couple backyard cannabis plants at my home in Portland, Oregon every summer in 25-gallon fabric pots that I can easily move around my garden when necessary. Last summer was super-duper hot for these parts, so I ended up moving my plants into the shade pretty often after they experienced some heat stress and leaf curl.

“I love gardening,” Crain continues. “I’m actually a master organic gardener and I do a lot of garden-to-kitchen fermentation projects at home — homemade hard cider, plum wine, dandelion wine, kimchi, sauerkraut, etc. I’ve never fermented cannabis. Yet!”

Executive chef of Ganja Eats and CBDaily Eats, Matthew Stockard tells us about his journey through the intersection of growing and cooking: “I’ve personally been growing for about 20 years. I started with outdoor, then switched to indoors about four years ago. Our team grows cannabis for various purposes. We have genetics that we grow just for food purposes and other strains for smoking and/or other purposes. We’ve recently started growing hemp CBD also. We wish everyone know the healing benefits of ingesting cannabis. It’s a shame the government took this long to start coming around.”

Cannabis food writer Liz Crain’s Portland home grow is impressive and diverse. (Photo courtesy of Liz Crain)

Using Every Part Of Your Cannabis Harvest

If you’re already growing cannabis at home, you likely have a surplus of flower and leaves to do with more than just combust or vape. Processing cannabis into edibles and topicals is merely the foundation of creating unique cannabis products — but it must be a sturdy, reliable foundation.

Danzer thinks we’re a bit too flippant about the plant’s journey to our stomachs. “The one thing I wish people would know about cannabis as a food additive or item is that it needs to be cleaned before you use it. Just like you have to clean your fruits, vegetables and herbs before you cook with them, you need to clean your cannabis. To that end, I invented a process for deep cleaning cannabis while preserving potency, that I’ve published in my cookbook and which I teach to people all over the world.”

Adding infusions and concentrates to your food is one thing, but the preservation of a cannabis harvest for turning into activated dishes and snacks empowers the consumer with more than just an intoxication experience. Crain learned this when using her infused coconut oil for a new-to-her purpose.

“Lately, my boyfriend and I have been playing a lot of tennis in our Portland parks,” she explains, “and several weeks ago I had some tendon strain and light muscle fatigue from that. I was telling another friend about that and getting some stretching advice. She told me that she’d had a similar situation, although more acute, and that she’d been using some of the cannabis coconut oil she’d made as a topical. It really helped her and she recommended I try it. And it helped me, too! I applied it pretty regularly for a couple weeks. So, I guess I’ll have a few less cannabis baked goods this winter.”

While you can’t simply cut and sprinkle homegrown cannabis onto your foods as you would with more traditional cooking herbs like oregano and parsley, that doesn’t mean using weed in your dishes isn’t similar to other food techniques that we’ve been practicing for generations — including curing, drying, and storing our grains, fruits and vegetables for future use.

What’s In Their Cannabis Gardens?

Unfortunately, right now only a handful of states allow homegrown cannabis, medical or otherwise — a tactic that prevents many people from accessing cannabis affordably and safely. Despite the most stringent safety protocols and best intentions put in place, licensed producers can still make mistakes in their grow ops, which is why foodies who wish to eat and serve cannabis to others are taking the cultivation of this stimulating foliage into their own hands.

Discussing what he’s working on right now, Danzer says, “My favorite cultivars have a significant amount of CBD content in addition to THC. Harlequin has been a favorite of mine for years. A lot of patients I cook for benefit greatly from both the CBD and THC.”

Meanwhile, Crain admits, “I really love every strain that I’ve grown, so I’m sorry but I just can’t pick a favorite.”

While the states vary in their grow laws and grow trends, Oregon seems to be a place where people don’t proclaim a love for one particular cannabinoid over another.

For Oregonian Crain, that means she gravitates toward the sativa spectrum, while remaining in the hybrid range, and recommends that other growers/cooks use their instincts when figuring out what to grow.

“I lean toward sativa-dominant hybrids and ones that I’ve loved growing and consuming include Sour Diesel, Blue Dream and Forum Cookies. My Grow Your Own co-author Nichole [Graf] says that everyone should go with their nose (the nose knows!) when picking cannabis strains to grow and/or consume personally, and sativa-dominant hybrids usually smell the best to me. That’s obviously a very large family of plants.”

We know a cultivar goes beyond its quirky name, and as more is discovered about the plant’s therapeutic properties and mysterious entourage effect, the topic of terpenes has become more than a passing fad in cannabis. Rather, these organic compounds hold the key to why cannabinoids perform so many diverse roles within the human body.

On these phytochemicals, Crain talks about variety: “Terpenes [the primary components of essential oils that give cannabis its aroma and flavor] are so important to the plant world aromatically, and they’re integral to cannabis and its physiological and psychoactive benefits. I learned a lot about terpenes while we researched and wrote the book. I really value diversity, so it’s been fun getting all sorts of different cured cannabis from friends these past few years, trying all of their wide and varied homegrown [strains].”

As Crain points out, many in growing and cooking circles like to share their bounty, while still being down to purchase high-quality buds from dispensaries. When it comes to third-party purchases, cannabis chef Stockard goes for LA-based Blaqstar Farms, known for its Durban Poison and Gorilla Glue strains. “I’ve always admired their strains and attention to detail. I’ve seen other companies with the same strains, and Blaqstar Farms cannabis stands out in a crowd.”

Crain’s kitchen stash provides the foundation for distinct canna cuisine creations. (Photo courtesy of Liz Crain)

Cannabis Flavor Is (And Isn’t) Everything

Terpenes and aromatic phytochemicals may be the way to go for combustibles, but chefs like Danzer know that consistent, safe and sometimes flavorless dosing can be a preference, or even a necessity, when it comes to crafting cannabis-centric cuisine.

He shares why this is the case: “This is where I differ from every other chef. I actually remove the flavor through a patent-pending process, which removes the terpenes and flavonoids from the cannabis before I infuse into my food, but doesn’t affect the potency. So, my edibles don’t have that grassy taste associated with cannabis-infused edibles. As such, I look for cultivars that fall within a range of specific percentages of CBD and THC versus flavor.”

This patent-pending process could prove handy for anyone who is not a fan of that cannabis taste. However, many people within the cannabis community do indeed go all in for those distinctive marijuana flavors, especially if the cannabis is intended for multiple modalities, from concentrates to combustibles.

Crain’s flavor experimentation is more freeform. “I’m always blending [cannabis] in fairly full-flavor recipes such as lemon bars and chocolates. My Sour Diesel and Lamb’s Bread (the latter was purportedly one of Bob Marley’s favorite strains) made a killer coconut oil. It tastes really bright and vegetal.”

Whether you class yourself as a cannabis connoisseur or a nug novice, flavor is extremely personal, so the plants these foodies grow should reflect precisely their tastes and that of their diners’.

So… Cannabis At Whole Foods?

When we look ahead into the cannabis crystal ball, we’re struck with the sheer possibilities of cuisine-centric innovation. Food represents love, sustenance, medicine, even indulgence, so we must recognize the course that these rivers will take.

Crain predicts a precise yet accessible future, with more backing from the scientific community. “More experimentation and fun with flavors and better explanation of potency and effects. I’d like to see more transparency with cannabis overall. I have a friend who’s been experimenting a bit with cannabis and cheese. Two of my favorite things. Yes, please!”

Danzer, fully intending to ride this wave, peeks into the looking glass and sees a rainbow of offerings for everyone. “As we slowly move toward legalization worldwide and consumers begin to understand the incredible value of the plant and its derivatives, I envision the normalization of cannabis and cannabis-infused edibles. This will lead to inspired new products and entire new food market segments, such as dedicated restaurants, infused commercial items ranging from candy and snack items to cooking oils, sauces and condiments available at store like Whole Foods, to menu items, ‘wake ’n’ bake’ breakfast cafes, and lounges.”

On that note, Stockard visualizes a similar level of accessibility, one that would blow the typical baby boomers’ mind. “My dream is to be able to provide cannabis and CBD products to the world. Be the first company to provide a variety of products from milk to vegetable oil. We want to be the Whole Foods of the cannabis industry.”

Being that this plant is and always has been a food source that produces pressed oil, juice and greens, it is more than prudent to predict that junction of the food and weed industries is set to explode. Not only that, but complementary industries including wellness, beauty, fitness and entertainment represent the beginning of cannabis’s re-entry into normal society and commerce, as described and dreamed of by these food-loving trailblazers.

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