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What is Chicory?


New Orleans style beignets with chicory coffee
Matthew O'Shea/Photodisc/Getty Images
Chicory is a caffeine-free herb that is as a popular coffee substitute, as well as an ingredient in New Orleans Coffee (or 'chicory coffee') recipes. Unlike decaf coffee, chicory is naturally caffeine free.

The Chicory Plant

The chicory plant is Cichorium intybus, is a hardy perennial with purplish-blue flowers that open and close at the exact same time each day. Chicory is common in North American and in Europe. Although chicory leaves are used in food (they are often known as endive, frisée, escarole or radicchio), chicory's roots are the parts used to make 'chicory.'

Each chicory plant has a single, long, thick root (known as a 'tap root'). Chicory root is roasted before it is brewed, but it can also be boiled and eaten like a vegetable.

For more on the chicory plant, see this chicory definition from About.com Herb Gardens.

Chicory's History

Chicory is one of the oldest recorded types of plants. Chicory is native to Northern Africa, Western Asia and Europe, and its cultivation is thought to have originated in Egypt in ancient times. Later, chicory was grown by Medieval monks in Europe (at which time commonly added to coffee by the Dutch). It was brought to North America in the 1700s and has been a popular coffee substitute or an ingredient in coffee in France since around 1800.

More recently, chicory consumption has been associated with embargoes and cost cutting. Across history, there have been many substitutes for coffee when coffee was unavailable, including roasted acorns, yams and a variety of local grains, but chicory tends to be the preferred coffee substitute, and in some circles it is even used when coffee is available and cheap.

One historical and cultural example of chicory's use as a coffee substitute is found in New Orleans. Due in part to its influences from French culture, New Orleans was a major consumer of coffee prior to the Civil War. Then, in 1840, coffee importation to the New Orleans harbor was blocked. Taking a cue from their French roots, locals began to use chicory as a coffee substitute. Today, chicory remains a popular coffee replacement or coffee flavoring in New Orleans, and 'New Orleans Coffee' typically refers to chicory coffee. New Orleans coffee vendors often blend their coffee with up to 30 percent chicory root.

For cost-cutting reasons, and perhaps for safety reasons, chicory is also used as a coffee substitute in many U.S. prisons.

Chicory Preparation

To make chicory root into an edible (or, technically, potable) substance, the root is pulled up from the ground, washed, dried, roasted, finely cut and then steeped or brewed. Chicory's roasting process gives it a roasty flavor roughly akin to that of coffee, and is part of the reason why chicory is a popular coffee substitute, as well as a fairly common ingredient in coffee recipes.

After chicory root is roasted and cut up (or, as some say, 'ground,' though this is not technically correct), it is ready to be steeped or brewed. Chicory is more water soluble than coffee, which means you need to use a lot less of it when brewing it with coffee or instead of coffee -- . (Since chicory is usually much cheaper than coffee, this is great if you're on a tight budget. However, over-brewing chicory will definitely place you in the anti-chicory camp, so be careful not to use too much.)

Chicory Recipes

To brew basic chicory coffee, use about 2/3 ground coffee and 1/3 chicory, and brew as you normally would (such as in a drop coffee maker or a French press). You can also use this New Orleans Cafe Noir Recipe for New Orleans black coffee or this New Orleans Cafe au Lait Recipe if you prefer milk in your coffee.

You can also use chicory for a coffee flavor in various foods, as Vosges did with their New Orleans Coffee Chocolate. I like this Chicory Coffee Crème Brûlée Recipes from Emeril, but (personally) if I'm going to have something sweet with chicory coffee, I prefer pairing chicory coffee and beignets to cooking with chicory coffee.

Chicory & Health

Chicory is generally thought to be healthy. It is naturally caffeine free, so if you're having issues with caffeine addition or caffeine overdose, then drinking chicory coffee or plain chicory can be a good way to reduce caffeine intake or eliminate caffeine from your diet. Chicory is also reported to kill intestinal parasites (or act as a vermifuge), cleanse the blood and improve liver health.

Chicory Synonyms & Misspellings

Chicory root, Cichorium intybus, curly endive, succory and chicory plant.

Chicory is sometimes misspelled 'chickory,' 'chikory,' 'chikorie' or 'chicorie.'

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