Photo via Mitchell Colbert
The word “decarboxylation” may seem intimidating at first glance, but in reality, the process by which you eliminate a carboxylic acid group from an organic compound is one that all stoners undertake on a daily basis. In fact, every time you put your flame up to a packed bowl of raw herb or hit the button on your vaporizer, you’re effectively decarboxylating cannabis. It’s the critical step to unearthing the psychoactive effects within cannabis, and without it, there are no cannabinoid acids being produced, and thus, no high.
The Chemical Process
Decarboxylation is a simple chemical process involving raw cannabis and a heat source, but within this simple process is a complex and ever-evolving art, one that has been slowly gaining prominence as cannabis use has become more socially acceptable as a medicinal and recreational substance.
Before the flame of your lighter “decarbs” your bud, the marijuana is packed with a tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), a chemical compound that is stored within the trichomes of raw cannabis flower, and is not psychoactive in the slightest. To get the effect that cannabis is known for, we must first transform this THCA into the good old tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound found in cannabis.
There are two primary stages in which decarboxylation can happen: when the flower is drying and afterward, when it is heated. When smoking or vaporizing, the process is far from artisanal or intensive. The extreme heat instantly activates the THC, which is absorbed into our bodies via our cannabinoid receptors, producing that beloved high. However, when decarboxylating cannabis for edibles or extractions, we must activate these psychoactive cannabinoids on our own before consumption takes place.
How to Decarboxylate for Cooking
Though I’m far from a culinary expert myself, I’ve had the fortune to have met renowned cannabis chefs such as Miguel Trinidad of 99th Floor and Michael Cirino of A Razor/ A Shiny Knife, both of whom spoke about the decarboxylation process as a delicate art form. The two most common methods of decarboxylation are through the oven or with a boiling process.
Cannabis begins to decarboxylate at around 220 degrees Fahrenheit. For the optimal oven method, you should preheat to 220–245 degrees, and bake the ground-up flower for about 30–45 minutes, depending on your preferences and the cannabis being utilized. It’s recommended that you grind up your cannabis finely before spreading it evenly upon a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Kief can also be decarboxylated with the oven method, but in half the time that it would take flower.
It’s important to note that a household oven doesn’t always match the exact temperature that it’s dialed to, thus it’s essential to constantly check the temperature and the oven itself throughout the process. Once your decarboxylated cannabis is dry and brown in color, let it cool down and pulse it within a food grinder. From here, you can start thinking about binding your decarboxylated cannabis with the fats in certain oils or alcohol.
Another method that is a bit more intensive, but also quite popular amongst cannabis chefs, is the boiler method. For this, you must place the cannabis in a vacuum-sealed boiling bag. Then, you must submerge the cannabis-filled bag into boiling water for about 90 minutes, ensuring that the water does not evaporate from the high temperature. After 90 minutes, the bag is removed from the water and cooled before opening. Like the oven method, you should be sure to moderate the temperature throughout the process (which should be at around 212 degrees Fahrenheit for the boiling water bath). This method can also be performed with a hot oil bath, but at higher temperatures (250 degrees) and until the bubbles begin to taper off.
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Preserve Your Terps and THC
Although cooking at higher temperatures might help your cannabis decarboxylate at a faster rate, slowing down the process has some immense benefits as well. When it comes to extracting THC and that distinctive flavor of each cannabis strain, which comes from pungent, naturally occurring oils called terpenes, decarboxylation must be performed more slowly. Once temperatures get up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, both the cannabinoids and terpenes become compromised, so even if you’re in a rush to decarboxylate, beware of letting your heat source get too hot.
Now that you’ve successfully decarboxylated your cannabis, you can now infuse it with various cooking oils, butter, lecithin, and also create potent alcohol or vegetable glycerine tinctures. Although you can technically still get a high from skipping the decarboxylation process and throwing your bud right into a heated solvent, you’re severely hindering both the integrity and potency of the cannabinoids and terpenes by doing so. Decarboxylation can be a lengthy and trying process, but your body and mind will certainly thank you for it once you ingest a fully activated edible infusion.