From distillates to hydrocolloids, the possibilities for making medibles are seemingly infinite. And you don’t always need fats.
It’s become something of a mantra among cannabis advocates: You need fats or oil to make cannabis edibles. It’s not entirely true.
Why do we say we need fats to make edibles? It breaks down to a chemistry saying: like dissolves like. This means we can only dissolve something – anything – if it’s dissolved in a solvent with like properties. Those properties are lipophilic and hydrophilic.
Hydrophilic means something will dissolve in water (Greek hydro-, water and -philos, “love”). The salt and sugar you’ll find on any dinner table are examples of hydrophilic compounds.
Lipophilic means something will dissolve in oils or fats (Greek lipos-, animal fat). If you’ve ever mixed melted butter or a cooking oil with water, you’ll see the oils clump together and float to the top. That’s because lipophilic compounds like vegetable oil can’t dissolve in water.
Oil Dissolves Oil
Most of the cannabinoids found in cannabis are lipophilic. We can’t boil cannabis flowers in water and brew a tea with psychoactive effects. That’s partially because THC does not activate at 100°C (it activates at 116°C or 240°F). But it’s mainly because THC doesn’t dissolve in water.
The “like dissolves like” concept applies to cooking in general. One of the reasons we cook meats in butter is to extract the animal fat for maximum flavor (my apologies to vegans and vegetarians). To extract THC at home, you need oils or fats.
How to Make Edibles Without Fats
Dissolving THC in an oil is just one way to get THC into your food. But oil isn’t what activates THC. Heat is what activates it.
It’s possible to extract THC from cannabis without ever activating it. If you let cannabis flower sit in an oil at room temperature, the oil will eventually absorb the cannabinoids and terpenes. This process could take days if not weeks, but the oil – at room temperature – won’t get anyone high. For medical patients, this is a great way to make infused dipping, drizzling, or salad oils that can be eaten in high amounts without the risk of psychoactive effects. But only if the oil is never heated or fried.
Just as you can make inactive THC extractions, you can also make psychoactive edibles without ever extracting the THC with oil. To do this, simply heat up kief, hash, or powdered flower in a baking sheet at 116°C or 240°F for about an hour. If your plant material is moist, go a little longer than an hour, but don’t raise the temperature. If it gets too hot, it’ll burn the good stuff long before you’d ever get to eat it.
Next, take your – ahem – baked goods, and transfer them into whatever you’re cooking. And I mean whatever. If you got a cake, dump that heat-activated kief/hash/flower into the batter. Feel free to include bits of Blue Dream flower in your blueberry muffins. You can go crazy and pour it into a soup made with – yes! – water. Heck, you can brew yourself a cup of that weed tea I told you wasn’t possible five paragraphs ago, but you’ll need to swallow the cannabis flakes.
Other Non-Fat Methods
Distillate or other cannabis concentrates are the most common ways to infuse mass-produced foods with THC. Prepackaged medical and recreational edibles are usually made with concentrates.
How does that work? Without getting too technical, both carbon dioxide extractions and hydrocarbon extractions (butane, propane) decarboxylate THC without needing heat. In fact, carbon dioxide extractions use incredibly cold temperatures well below water’s freezing point. Most concentrates are made with one of the two methods, so they’re ready for being made into edibles right out of the box.
Some concentrates, like shatter, hash, or wax may be too thick to work with. If you need to make them more liquidy, melt them into butter or cooking oil at a low temp (just low enough to make everything dissolve).
Distillates, on the other hand, have a natural consistency similar to corn syrup. This makes distillates great for infusing honeys, syrups, jellies, jams, gelatins, and gummies.
Using concentrates to make edibles is super easy. Just take the concentrate and add however much you want to your edible. Do note that concentrates, being composed of lipophilic compounds, will not dissolve in water. There are ways to get them to dissolve in water, but those require incredibly expensive machines that likely fall outside of your tax bracket.
Molecular gastronomy is where Gordon Ramsay meets Walter White. If you’ve ever seen chefs use a blowtorch to caramelize frosting on a cake, then you’ve seen molecular gastronomy in action. It’s a method of cooking that employs some flashy and not-so-flashy chemistry tricks. By definition, molecular gastronomists seek to understand how ingredients transform, at the molecular level, during the cooking process. But not every chef is interested in chemical processes, which is why some of them refer to it as molecular cuisine or modernist cuisine.
One of molecular gastronomy’s favorite tools are the hydrocolloids, a class of molecules that can make things dissolve in water that normally wouldn’t dissolve in water. Recall that “like dissolves like.” THC won’t dissolve in water because it’s an oil, but hydrocolloids are a natural way to cheat this rule.
Starch, a hydrocolloid, can emulsify THC into water. This requires a few steps, but basically the THC molecules bond, or stick, to the starch molecules. By sticking to the starch, the THC becomes a bit of a stowaway, and it now takes on some of the starch’s chemical properties. One of those properties is dissolving in water.
It gets better. Even after dissolving in water, THC remains bonded to the starch. Our digestive system evolved to prioritize absorption of carbohydrates like starch. That’s because carbs provide us with a ton of energy, and they do it quickly. Our ancestors that ate carbs had a higher chance of surviving compared to their peers that didn’t.
What Happens When You Eat Emulsified THC?
When we eat emulsified THC, it begins absorbing into our blood as soon as it enters our mouths. Carbohydrate channels along the lining in our mouths can detect sugars and starches and begin sending them into our blood, bypassing the long journey down our esophagus, to the stomach, and finally the liver. This is why powdered cannabis edibles can get us feeling buzzed in five minutes, whereas a fat- or oil-based edible can take up to two hours.
The cool part about THC emulsification is you can do it at home. It doesn’t take a chemistry degree or a loan equivalent to the cost of a chemistry degree to make. Most molecular gastronomy kits available online include recipes and ingredients for emulsification. You can also find from-scratch recipes online or in books.
The takeaway here is that there are a lot of ways to make edibles, and they don’t all have to include fats or oils. If you’re watching your waistline or your just don’t like oily foods, you can still have your cannabis, and eat it, too.
Using an oil is simply the fastest and most efficient way of doing it at home. Besides, fats can be really, really good for you.