What Is Chicory Root and What Is It Used For?

Chicory Root

Chicory root is a versatile and healthy ingredient with a variety of food applications. Take an in-depth look at chicory root with this guide.

Stopping into New Orleans’ Cafe du Monde for beignets and a cafe au lait is a famous tradition. Other than the steamy ambiance of a Louisiana afternoon, what makes it so special?

The coffee.

New Orleans has a distinct coffee flavor.  It’s a rounded coffee flavor, with fruity and caramel notes. But what is the difference? 

It’s chicory root.  

Chicorium Intybus Sativa is a humble, fist-sized root with some amazing health properties. It yields a high concentration of inulin (a precursor to fructose.) Roasted and ground with coffee, it intensifies the aromatics in coffee without caffeine.

New Orleans coffee can replace up to half the coffee beans with roasted chicory. It’s a tasty substitution. Read on to learn more about this versatile and healthy ingredient.

All About Chicory Root

Chicory root is a close cousin to the expensive and tasty Belgian endive, radicchio, frisée, and escarole. However, endive and the rest are bred and grown for the leaves. The Sativa strain is bred for strong, bulbous roots. 

Chicory roots are grown and harvested similar to sugar beets. The leafy parts above ground are discarded or used as animal feed. In many parts of the U.S., chicory leaves are considered a noxious weed.

Special equipment gathers the roots from the field, then it is washed, cut and kiln-dried. Chicory meant for coffee is then roasted, ground and blended. Chicory for other uses may be processed after kiln-drying.

Rich Source of Fiber

One of the biggest uses of chicory is as a food additive or supplement. When you see the words “with added fiber” on the labels of protein bars, diet supplements or cereal, it’s often chicory!

Chicory root is up to 65% fiber by weight and a source of the complex carbohydrate inulin. Inulin is not digestible to humans, but it is an important form of nutrition for the bacteria that live deep in our guts. The bacteria break our food down into bits our body can use, so keeping our gut bacteria healthy is a priority.

These unique benefits of chicory root aren’t limited to fiber and digestive health. Chicory is a rich source of the antioxidant beta carotene. The human body converts beta carotene into vitamin A, which is necessary for good vision, skin and cell regeneration. 

Chicory for Health

All parts of the chicory plant are edible. In addition to the documented uses as a fiber supplement and a source of beta carotene, chicory has a history as an herbal remedy. A tea of bitter chicory root is used as a worm expelling agent in some cultures. 

There is evidence that chicory leaves, stems, and roots as cattle feed are effective in parasite reduction. In people, however, the effects are not documented. Large doses of chicory are not recommended for pregnant women, as it has historical use as a menstrual regulator. 

Chicory has reported uses in control of high blood pressure, liver disorders, diabetes, and more. However, more research is needed.

Chicory Root for Baking

You can use roasted, ground chicory roots as a hot beverage. Add chicory to yogurt or granola for a fiber boost. You can purchase chicory granules

Inulin refined from chicory root is a popular fiber enrichment to many commercial baked goods. Inulin adds body, sweetness, and acts as a binding agent. It can be used as a substitution for other sweeteners or as a substitution for binders like eggs in moderation.

Too much inulin fiber intake can have unfortunate digestive effects in the unwary. The right amount is no more than 2 grams per serving. Inulin powder is tasteless and colorless on its own.  It is available from many health food retailers and specialty baking stores.

Other Culinary Uses of Chicory

You are much more likely to find leafy chicory in your local market or out foraging. However, if you do happen to get your hands on a fresh root, many cultures love the taste and texture of the well-roasted and ground flesh in beverages and baked goods. 

If you choose to use a fresh chicory leaf or root, remember that they are often very bitter. A slow cook (for the root) or a quick saute (for the leaf) takes away the bitterness. A small amount of radicchio, escarole or frisée is often part of salad mixes to add a bitter note to otherwise ordinary lettuces.

Chicory leaf greens like endive and arugula are prized for their bitter notes to highlight rich cheeses and good olive oils. Chefs create soups, salads, omelets and more. 

Chicory Recipes

If you are lucky enough to have a source of fresh chicory,  try this simple soup preparation.  It’s very much a “throw it together and look gourmet” sort of recipe. This basic recipe makes several different soups. Just vary the protein choice!

Ingredients:

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

3 garlic cloves, smashed

3 cups chicken broth 

1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence

8 oz chicory greens, washed and roughly chopped

8 oz meatballs (use homemade or frozen)

salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Cook onions in oil in a 3-4 quart pot over moderate heat. Cook until softened, then add garlic and herbes de Provence and cook with frequent stirring another 2 minutes.

Stir in broth and bring to a boil. Stir in chicory and meatballs, then simmer, uncovered, until chicory is tender, about 10 -15 minutes. (This may vary depending on the kind of chicory greens you choose.)

Season with salt and pepper. Serve with a crusty baguette and garnish with good olive oil. 

Variations: Substitute crumbled cooked chorizo or Italian sausage for the meatballs, substitute a can of kidney, white or garbanzo beans for meat. If you don’t like herbes de Provence, substitute Greek oregano, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of red chile flakes.

Add Chicory to Your Diet

Chicory root beverages and baked goods or chicory greens are a great way to get added fiber and micronutrients into your diet. The bitter flavor and natural cooked sweetness are great contrasts and complement to rich foods. 

Try chicory coffee to start and branch out into all forms of delicious ways to increase inulin intake. 

Want to learn more about improving your health, mentally and physically? Check out our article on food and depression. 

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