How Chefs Cook with Cannabis

Credit: Lew Robertson / Getty Images

If you’ve ever had a pot brownie, you probably don’t remember it fondly. Even if it ended up being a lot of fun, you had to actually eat the brownie to get there, and in the old days — before marijuana was fully legalized in four states — those pastries tended to taste like a stale chocolate cookie that had been soaked in bong water.

Enter JeffThe420Chef. The Los Angeles–based culinary artist, whom The Daily Beast called “the Julia Child of weed,” has been teaching people how to make gourmet meals with cannabis for nearly two years. A longtime cook and marijuana enthusiast, Jeff was inspired to combine the two after a friend’s mother became sick with cancer. She didn’t like to smoke, and couldn’t bear the weed-heavy taste of pot brownies, so Jeff started experimenting with a wide range of recipes that would deliver the benefits of cannabis without the strong taste.

Now he’s out with a book, The 420 Gourmet: The Elevated Art of Cannabis Cuisine (HarperCollins), that aims to teach everybody what he’s learned over the years. You’ll find detailed instructions on how to make your own cooking more green, as well as some of his trademark recipes, including Blueberry Canna-Coconut Waffles, Infused Wild Mushroom Risotto, and a Fakin’ “Bakin’” Veggie Cheeseburger. Jeff gave us some pointers on cooking with weed via telephone from his home in Los Angeles.

Know Your Bud
All pot is not created equal. There’s a wide gulf between the ditch weed you smoked in high school and high-end strains you can find in dispensaries like Sour Diesel and Jack Herrer. Jeff suggests you research as much as you can about the potency of your favorite kind of weed.

You’ll first want to know which family the marijuana you’re cooking with belongs to. “There’s sativa, which is more uplifting, and [gives you] more energy and focus,” Jeff explains. “Indica is the opposite, it's a much more relaxed feeling. An indica-based strain will make you chill, relaxed. It will give you what people refer to as couch-lock, where you're pretty much just hanging out and don't really want to move.”

Many strains are hybrids, which combine both sativa and indica. But whichever one you’re cooking with, you’ll want to know how much THC and CBD they have.

“There are two different compounds in cannabis. One is THC, that's the psychoactive cannabinoid that gets you high,” Jeff says. “But the lesser-known ‘little brother’ of THC is CBD, and that is a non-psychoactive medicinal compound in cannabis. And that's what people use to treat seizures, and scientific studies are starting to show that it kills cancer cells and shrinks tumors.”

Reputable dispensaries will be able to tell you how much of those two compounds each strain has. But what if you’re cooking in a square state where marijuana is illegal? Jeff points to a new handheld device on the market called MyDx, which analyzes your bud and tells you how much THC and CBD it contains.

“I take it everywhere I go when I cook,” Jeff says. “Unless you're buying from a reputable dispensary, you really don't know what you're getting.”

Do The Math
If you skipped high school algebra to toke behind the cafeteria, don’t panic: it’s easier than it sounds, thanks to a calculator Jeff invented and has on his website for anyone to use. He also has the equations listed in The Ganja Gourmet.

Why is this important? “This is actually a medicine that is potent,” Jeff emphasizes. “If you don't understand how potent your butter or oil is, if you have too much THC, you'll end up being paranoid, having anxiety, feeling nauseous, maybe throwing up. You'll have a really bad time with it. You'll wake up the next day with a hangover; you won't be able to function too well.”

If you don’t want to end up locking yourself in a college dorm bathroom for three hours (uh, hypothetically, of course), you’ll take Jeff’s advice. Too much THC is the opposite of fun.

Jeff plans to launch his calculator as an app, for the weed chef on the go, on — wait for it — April 20.

Prepare Your Weed
The biggest mistake cannabis cooking amateurs make, Jeff says, is just throwing their weed into what they’re cooking. This will lead to no high and the possibility of nausea, so avoid it at all costs. It takes time to prepare your bud properly, but it’s a must.

“I tell people that they need to soak the cannabis in distilled water for at least 24 to 48 hours just to take out the impurities and to remove the chlorophyll,” Jeff says. “And I teach people how to blanch it to take out even more of the taste and more of the impurities, so you're working with a really fine product that you're going to infuse into your butter or oil.”

The next step is a process called decarboxylation, or “decarbing.” It involves some science, so stay with us.

“What decarbing does is it actually activates the THC or CBD,” Jeff explains. “Decarbing is done through heat and time. When you're smoking weed, when you light it, the combustion automatically decarbs it, and you're smoking THC. But when you're cooking, if you don't decarb it, you're cooking with something called THCA. And that A molecule is basically blocking the THC from coming off the leaf into the butter or oil.”

Jeff explains the decarbing process, which involves an oven, and is easier than you might think, in his book.

Infuse Your Butter or Oil
THC and CBD are both fat-soluble, which means they bind well to butter and oil. It’s these ingredients that will give the food you prepare the effects of marijuana.

In The Ganja Gourmet, Jeff provides recipes for cannabis-infused butter, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, and many more. Which one you use depends on what recipe you’re cooking with — Jeff uses butter for his Heath Bar Canna-Cookie Butter Brownies, for example, and sesame oil for his Canna-Chicken Sesame Salad (a favorite of his friends, he says).

Start Off Simple, But Be Creative
“For beginners, it's important to follow a recipe so you understand how it works,” Jeff says. “Once you understand how it works, you can be as creative as you want.”

And he would know. Although he started out just trying to make a pot brownie that tasted more like chocolate and less like Willie Nelson’s tour bus, he’s since figured out how to cook just about anything.

“Once I figured out how to take out the taste, I went to town,” he says. “I started doing pot Shabbats a year and a half ago. People loved them. You have your Canna-Challah and Ccanna-Matzoh Ball Soup. I've also done some other crazy themed dinners and events for the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, you name it.”

He even figured out a way to make a cannabis-infused, non-alcoholic Irish cream liqueur for a friend, using pot-chocolate-coated coffee beans manufactured by Kiva. (Jeff urges caution when buying edibles — stick to reputable brands like Kiva, Dixie Elixirs, Altai, and others, he urges.)

Share The Wealth
Once you’ve got the hang of it, invite some of your weed-loving friends to marvel at your newfound skill. Jeff strongly suggests that those partaking in a cannabis meal don’t drink alcohol or smoke pot while they’re eating — it can create unpredictable reactions — and be patient. It sometimes takes hours for the THC and CBD to kick in.

Fittingly for someone who started his cannabis-cooking career because of a friend’s ailing mother, Jeff says the most important thing to remember is that you can, and should, help other people.

“I cook for a lot of sick people out there,” he says. “I don't charge to do this. They acquire the cannabis, and I'll go there and cook a meal for them. The most important thing is, when I go and cook, I teach them how to do it themselves. Because I can't feed everybody on a constant basis, and for a lot of people, this is not recreational. This is a lifestyle change they're making, that they can actually use cannabis they've been prescribed for medicinal purposes.”