What is chicory coffee?
Chicory coffee is a hot drink made from the roasted and ground root of the chicory plant. It has a similar taste to coffee, but with an added earthy, nutty flavour, and can be used as a caffeine-free alternative, or mixed in with regular coffee to enhance the flavour.
What is chicory root used for?
The chicory plant is related to the dandelion and the endive, with pretty blue flowers and a bulbous root. This useful little plant is native to Western Asia, North Africa and Europe, and can also be found growing in North America, Australia and China. The leaves of the chicory plant have been used as a food item at least as far back as ancient Roman times, but it is probably best known for its edible root, which can be roasted and ground into powder to make a bitter-tasting hot drink, similar to coffee.
Sometimes referred to as ‘the poor man’s coffee,’ chicory has been used as a coffee substitute in Europe for centuries. When Frederick the Great of Prussia restricted coffee imports by imposing a state monopoly in 1766, enterprising Prussians brewed up using chicory instead. Likewise, when Napoleon Buonaparte’s embargo on trade with Britain caused coffee shortages in France in the early 1800s, the French also turned to chicory root as a substitute. The trade ban, known as the Continental Blockade, was lifted in 1814, but not before the French had developed a taste for chicory coffee.
From France, chicory found its way to Louisiana. There, during the American Civil War, history appeared to repeat itself, as the Union Blockade cut the inhabitants of New Orleans off from their beloved Café au Lait. Just as their French ancestors had done, the citizens of New Orleans used chicory as a replacement, and found they liked it so much that they have been mixing chicory with their coffee ever since.
These days, the rest of America is beginning to discover the benefits of chicory coffee, and it seems that this drink has more to offer than just its unique flavour. As a caffeine-free substitute for coffee, chicory can be a great way of reducing stress-levels while still getting your coffee fix. A 2006 study in Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behaviour suggests that regular consumption of caffeine, combined with mental or physical stress, elevates levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, to greater extent than stressful activity alone. So if you often find yourself in stressful situations, reducing your caffeine intake could be a sensible idea, and drinking chicory coffee is one way to achieve that.
Drinking chicory coffee could also have other health benefits. Chicory root itself is made primarily from a fibre called inulin. Inulin is what is known as a ‘prebiotic’, meaning it is a good source of food for the ‘friendly’ bacteria needed to maintain a healthy digestive system. This may mean that chicory could help to relieve constipation, according to studies in The International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition and Food Hydrocolloids. Other experiments suggest that the inulin in chicory could help prevent or control diabetes, by encouraging the gut bacteria that help break carbohydrates down into sugars. A 2013 study in The Diabetes and Metabolism Journal showed a significant decrease in blood sugar levels in diabetic women who took 10g of inulin daily, over two months.
These findings are promising, but more research is needed. For example, most experiments involve taking supplements, and we can’t say for sure if consuming chicory coffee, or any other foods with chicory as an ingredient, will have the same results. As always, a healthy diet is best used in conjunction with medical advice, and if you do have any medical conditions, you should speak to your doctor.
What does chicory coffee taste like?
Chicory coffee does actually taste quite similar to coffee, but with a more herbal flavour, along with woody, nutty undertones, a slight sourness, like cherries, and a strong aftertaste. Its smell has been compared, again, to coffee, and also to sweet tobacco smoke.
There are several ways to enhance the flavour of chicory coffee. In New Orleans, the spiritual home of chicory coffee, it is usually served with plenty of milk, giving it a delicious, burnt-marshmallow taste. You can also mix it with chocolate, or serve it chilled, over ice.
Chicory Coffee Recipe
You can buy chicory coffee grounds online or at health food stores, but it's actually pretty simple to make your own. Some people like to forage for wild chicory, but if you’re not confident in telling chicory from similar plants, you can always buy chicory root (often sold as ‘endive’) from your local store. To make chicory grounds, follow this quick and easy recipe from Roasty Coffee.
You can brew chicory coffee in exactly the same way as you would regular coffee grounds, using a french press (cafetière), filter coffee maker or an espresso machine. Most people prefer to mix chicory grounds with coffee grounds, but what ratio you use is up to you. You may wish to add more chicory to your blend as you get used to the flavour.
Once you’ve learned the basics, you can start getting creative. Chicory grounds can be used in exactly the same way as coffee grounds, so why not add chicory to your favourite style of coffee and brew up a chicory cappuccino or a chicory latte? You can even add chicory to coffee-based desserts, like this delicious recipe for Italian Friuli.