Dark chocolate bar with cacao nibs. Milk chocolate bar with cacao nibs. Chocolate covered cacao nibs. Cacao nibs are turning up in more and more places, but with little explanation as to what they are because they are almost always an add-in to some other product. Cacao nibs are basically raw chocolate, pieces of cacao beans that have been roasted, hulled and prepped to the point where all that there is left to do is process them into bars. The chocolate-making process involves grinding up the cacao into a thick paste to which extra cacao butter, sugar, milk and other flavorings are added.
Nibs, on their own, taste vaguely similar to roasted coffee beans. Nibs are a bit crunchier than coffee beans, since some coffee beans can become quite delicate after roasting, but give primarily the same textural effect when covered in chocolate. Cacao nibs are always found in small pieces, rather than coffee bean-sized pieces. The flavor is slightly nutty and, while there are definitely some chocolate notes in there, they are primarily going to contribute texture and a hint of bitterness (the same as raw cocoa powder). Some beans will have a more complex flavor, but generally coffee beans will have a more interesting taste on their own. Cacao nibs do serve to draw out darker notes in chocolate, which is why they are such a popular addition.
You’ll generally see cacao nibs incorporated into other chocolate products, or simply covered in chocolate and sold as a snack. They are also sold apart, intended to be used as a mix-in for baked goods or sweets. You can use them in addition to, or in place of, chocolate chips or nuts in a cookie, for instance. They can be eaten on their own, too, but as is the case with coffee beans, they’re almost always better with something else.