By Kim Severson
Source: New York Times
Recreational marijuana is both illegal and controversial in most of the country, and its relationship to food does not rise much above a joke about brownies or a stoner chef’s late-night pork belly poutine.
But cooking with cannabis is emerging as a legitimate and very lucrative culinary pursuit.
In Colorado, which has issued more than 160 edible marijuana licenses, skilled line cooks are leaving respected restaurants to take more lucrative jobs infusing cannabis into food and drinks. In Washington, one of four states that allow recreational marijuana sales, a large cannabis bakery dedicated to affluent customers with good palates will soon open in Seattle.
Major New York publishing houses and noted cookbook authors are pondering marijuana projects, and chefs on both coasts and in food-forward countries like Denmark have been staging underground meals with modern twists like compressed watermelon, smoked cheese and marijuana-oil vinaigrette.
“It really won’t be long until it becomes part of haute cuisine and part of respectable culinary culture, instead of just an illegal doobie in the backyard,” said Ken Albala, director of the food studies program at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco.
Two problems, however, stand in the way: First, it’s hard to control how high people get when they eat marijuana. And second, it really doesn’t taste that good.
Still, what if chefs could develop a culinary canon around marijuana that tamed both its taste and mood-altering effects, and diners came to appreciate dishes with marijuana the way one appreciates good bourbon? Paired with delicious recipes and the pleasures of good company, cannabis cookery might open a new dimension in dining that echoes the evolutions in the wine and cocktail cultures.
“I am sure someone is going to grow some that is actually delicious and we’ll all learn about it,” said Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet magazine and a former New York Times restaurant critic. Who could have predicted that kale would be the trendiest green on the plate, or that people would line up for pear and blue cheese ice cream, she asked.
“Cuisine is a product of people who cook and the ideologies they bring into the kitchen and what they are able to do with the instruments they have on hand,” said Adam Gomolin, a lawyer and amateur chef who helped found the crowd-funded publishing company Inkshares.
In the fall, his company plans to publish “Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis,” a project which has attracted the cookbook author Michael Ruhlman.
The place where culinary science and heightening pleasure meet interests Mr. Ruhlman, who is in talks to write a chapter on proper ratios for preparing culinary cannabis.
The rest of the book will contain recipes like marijuana-infused black pepper biscuits, butternut squash soup and sausage marinara developed by Melissa Parks, a Denver chef who once worked for General Mills and now serves as vice president of product development for Nutritional High International, a company based in Toronto. “What intrigued me,” Mr. Ruhlman said, “is the notion that you could figure out a ratio that would allow you to use pot in the way one would enjoy a martini and still have a pleasant experience.”
Cannabis cooking will hit the mainstream, he said, only “when you can give it to someone and not make them a complete idiot.”
The book is the second, more sophisticated effort from the people who created “The Stoner’s Cookbook,” a website that has more than five million page views a month. The site’s chief executive, Matt Gray, predicts the legal marijuana industry will be worth $10.2 billion in five years and that edible marijuana could be as much as 40 percent of that.
Cooking with marijuana requires a scientist’s touch to draw out and control the cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which alter one’s mood and physical sensations. To get a consistent, controllable effect, marijuana is best heated and combined with fats like butter, olive oil or cream.
But it could also work — albeit less effectively — as a seasoning, which was the point of a discussion in the hallway of a five-star hotel here this year, when a few chefs in town for a conference took a break to huddle around a collection of marijuana-infused sweets including one called a rookie cookie.
The snicker doodle, purchased at a shop that looked like a pared-down Apple Store, was baked with just enough cannabis-infused butter to give a novice a tender high.
“The weed is pretty faint, but it’s not an un-delicious weed type flavor,” said Michel Nischan, a chef from Connecticut. “It’s almost like when you do a savory cookie and you might find sage or rosemary or verbena in it.”
Although culinary skill might coax deliciousness from cannabis, dosing remains a vexing issue. Karin Lazarus runs Sweet Mary Jane, a commercial bakery in Boulder. Her recipes will be featured in “Sweet Mary Jane: 75 Delicious Cannabis-Infused High-End Desserts,” due out in June from the Avery imprint of Penguin Random House.
Ms. Lazarus, who New York magazine called “the Martha Stewart of weed baking,” makes confections like the Scout’s Honor, which is a play on the Thin Mint cookie, and tart key lime and white chocolate truffles.
Because law prohibits tasting dosed products at work, she first works out recipes without using marijuana, and then adds cannabis-infused sugar, oil or butter. She tests the products in a laboratory. They get taste tested as well, but not at work.
For the moment, her products are for the medical-marijuana market, which allows for higher doses than food sold under a recreational license. Under new rules beginning in February, each product can only have 10 milligrams per serving and only 100 milligrams total.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana sales. Only four states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado — allow recreational sales. The people who sell edible marijuana often advise people who have not tried it before to start with 10 milligrams or less. Dosing is easier to control in batter-based dishes or chocolate, where the drug can be distributed more evenly. In savory applications, dosing is trickier. A cook might be able to make sure a tablespoon of lime-cilantro butter has 10 milligrams of THC, but will the guest eat exactly that amount?
“From my very limited experience with edibles, the flavor is pretty awful,” said Grant Achatz, the Chicago chef who made his reputation with experimental cooking.
Ms. Parks, who only rarely uses cannabis and began cooking with it to help a friend with cancer, argues that marijuana can be delicious.
“There are dozens of strains and some might smell like lemon grass or strawberry or sage or wheatgrass,” she said. Different strains also offer different highs. A well-placed dose of cannabis might provide just enough elevation in an appetizer or a calming finish to meal that alcohol could become less interesting.
“A lot of people could argue that a lot of alcohol doesn’t taste good, either,” said Ms. Reichl. “So maybe you won’t need to drink wine with your dinner. It could be very bad for the wine industry.”