Confession: I'm afraid of pot food.
Sure, I like to smoke pot sometimes. But at some point circa age 23, I lost the ability to wolf down a weed brownie without withdrawing into a state of spiral-eyed paranoia, a tingly coma where all I could do was lie on the cool hardwood floor of my apartment listening to M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us wrapped in a down comforter and obsessing over the emotional significance of my childhood pets.
I'm not the only one, either—lots of people get "The Fear" from ingesting pot. You'll think you've eaten a dud, only to be swallowed into an abyss of anxiety 45 minutes later when your edible unexpectedly kicks in and drags you to hell.
Until attending a recent gourmet cannabis cooking class at The Brooklyn Kitchen—a family-owned, high-end cooking store in East Williamsburg—I assumed that this was my fault. A weak mental constitution, maybe. A lost resilience in regards to psychedelic substances.
With this mindset, I nervously arrive at the course, convinced that I'm a fraud and a lightweight.
Before the class starts, I find myself sipping on one of the hemp-themed beers offered to attendees (Otter Creek Brewing's Citra Mantra IPL) and talking to Brooklyn Kitchen owner Taylor Erkkinen. Working at a website called MUNCHIES, I'm somewhat paranoid that people will either think that I'm already high (I'm not, seriously) or that it would be a good idea to get me really high during the class.
But Taylor is quick to clarify that the instructor, Michael J. Cirino, will be doing his demonstrations with big, fragrant, green bushels of… oregano. This was the only way to legally conduct a course of this type in New York, where the aroma of pot wafts down every street but the law still prohibits its usage.
"I wonder if anyone showed up here high," I wonder aloud.
"I wouldn't be surprised," Taylor shrugs. "A certain star of film and television, mostly film, has been to some of our classes before... [Jonah Hill] came to a couples class and basically sat in the corner because he was just unbelievably high. He was really sweet, just so incredibly blunted."
Before us lies a massive spread of cheeses, charcuterie, cookies, crudité, and other things I would delight in eating after hitting a blunt. You may assume that a gourmet weed cooking course would be a venue for demonstrating how to get the most super super baked, to infuse marijuana into your food in the most potent ways possible to reach maximum brain drain. But I soon find that this was not the case at Brooklyn Kitchen's class.
Michael has been teaching at Brooklyn Kitchen for six years—mostly molecular gastronomy courses for home cooks.
"I love restaurants, but I don't ever want to cook in one," he tells us. He'd rather show people "how to make three-Michelin-starred food at home."
This makes him a fantastic candidate for teaching the course, as the best methods of cooking with weed seem to rely on technical know-how over the crude processes commonly implemented by stoner home cooks, which typically include dumping a whole bag of weed in some melted butter, throwing that in a batch of boxed brownies, and hoping for the best.
Which brings up one of Michael's first, and most important, points: Prohibition is doing no favors to the advancement of weed cuisine.
As federal legalization appears to creep closer and closer, there's a growing impetus to figure out how we can serviceably manage the high we get from eating weed. After all, there's a big difference between sipping a beer or two in your backyard and binge-drinking yourself into oblivion with a nightlong stream of tequila shots. Why shouldn't marijuana edibles and drinkables have the same degree of breadth, nuance, and sophistication as alcohol? If a couple puffs of a joint are roughly equivalent to the buzz from a glass of wine, the underestimated effects of a full-strength edible from a dispensary or your friend's dreadlocked roommate can feel, comparably, like drowning in a vat of Jägermeister.
"For me, cannabis started 15 years ago, when I started learning about wine," Michael tells us. "Wine, coffee, chocolate—all of these things are rituals well-ingrained in our society. We sip lattes, eat bon-bons and truffles, do wine tastings, [all] without getting fucked up." (I might disagree when it comes to wine tastings, but I guess that all depends on whose company you're in.)
Despite being totally ubiquitous in society, weed lacks this shared ritualism because of its illegal status. Michael's also quick to point out that—as a former Nixon aide recently admitted—the War on Drugs was instituted with the intention of disenfranchising and incriminating hippie leftists and people of color.
As a result, marijuana has become not unlike moonshine during the Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. With weed still seen as precious (we've all picked sad flecks of nug dust out of a carpet after an accidental stash spill), difficult to obtain (relative to, say, a beer), and expensive, it makes sense that its effects in and of themselves are also a commodity. If you have a limited supply of ganja, you're going to want to maximize your high. And often, that leads to unsophisticated edibles that are so potent they can turn an average person into a drooling doofus incapable of anything but housing a bag of Taco Bell and watching Broad City reruns.
Another major roadblock caused by weed's prohibition is the lack of thorough and effective testing methods for marijuana strains. Most people just go with whatever their dealer has on hand, and his anecdotal notes about it being "a suuuper chill indica," or "a crazy sativa, man."
"Michael's approach is definitely toward a more considered and subtle high, that is not designed to, like, completely fuck you up," Brooklyn Kitchen owner Taylor says. "The current market is for medical patients and not casual users."
"It's the difference between a spritzer and, like, a Long Island iced tea, right? Like when you smoke a blunt... you are not interesting anymore. You're not able to have a conversation."
After a lengthy lecture about the importance of realizing the varied effects that weed can have, as well as the responsibility that comes with preparing pot food for a group, it's time for Cirino's methods of infusion to take center stage. Thankfully, I'm seated in front of a heaping board of duck prosciutto and fresh porchetta on which to blithely snack during the science-y stuff.
Lesson one: You should be decarbing your weed. In case you're not familiar with this term, it stands for "decarboxylate," a chemical process that releases carbon dioxide (sorry, environmentalists) and adds some protons to your compound. It's basically the opposite of the first step of photosynthesis, and it maximizes the THC content of your ganja.
"It may seem antithetical, like you're losing what you're paying for," Michael acknowledges of the process, which involves baking your fresh plant matter on a cookie tray for six to eight minutes at 325 degrees. There are other ways, too: You can do it on your stovetop, essentially toasting the stuff, or you can do it in a pressure cooker (put your weed in a jar, add some water to the cooker, and go full pressure for about 30 minutes).
Lesson two: You've gotta infuse weed in either fat or alcohol. My two favorite things!
If you want to infuse alcohol, and do it fast and right, you'll need to get your hands on very, very high-proof vodka, he says. In New York, you'd best opt for 194 proof, which is the highest available. But as long as you go over 150 proof, you should be golden.
At this point, Michael pulls out a fancy iSi canister, which he uses to demonstrate rapid infusion. With just two charges, you can essentially pressurize all of the good stuff from your weed into the alcohol. It's magic!
Some explanations are a little complex. "This is off-gassing all of its terpenes," he says, and I nod to feign comprehension. But when he describes weed's aroma as being one of pine, hops, and lemon, my brain reactivates with familiarity.
To get all the plant crud out of your weed tincture, you can put the alcohol through an AeroPress. Every five milliliters—about an eyedropper-full—of this tincture is equivalent to roughly three puffs on a joint. "There's absolutely no way for me to prove that… but anecdotally," Michael cautions. He likes to put his tincture at the bottom of a warm coffee cup, then pour his coffee over it so the tincture infuses throughout. Wake and bake, indeed.
Here comes the part that may sound more familiar to you: making weed butter. Except, not so much actual butter. People are often hesitant to venture into other fats that make fantastic vehicles for getting high. Butter has a high water content—about 18 percent—and is easy to burn.
Beef tallow, for instance, has a higher smoking point than butter, and is perfect for the task. He warms some in a double boiler, and adds a generous handful of chopped-up herb. After slow-cooking on the stovetop for two hours, it will be ready to drizzle over some rare steak, "as you'd have at Balthazar or another French bistro."
A dude in the back with a beanie pulled low over his eyebrows asks if you could do all of this in a smoker. "Like, as a rub, for instance." You cannot, says Michael, as it wastes a hell of a lot of the active ingredient in the smoke. Instead, he suggests infusing French onion soup, or ice cream with cannabis poached in the cream. He waxes about "beautiful truffle oil infused with cannabis," applied with great care as a finishing oil. Other flavors that complement weed are dried grapefruit, anise, turmeric, black pepper, and ghee.
Beanie Dude, undeterred, asks if you can make cannabis barbecue. Michael says yes, but to put a weed-infused fat into your sauce rather than applying it pre-grilling.
"Always err on the side of delicacy," he says. "Most people who smoke are overdosing themselves."
Distraught, and perhaps missing the point, Beanie Dude asks if you can make weed fried chicken in a pressure cooker. Michael tactfully suggests cooking some marijuana into chicken fat and dripping it over the top of fried chicken instead.
"I don't recommend making brownies or cookies," Michael says. "Besides the fact that those are snack foods that you'll want to eat more of when you're already high."
A weed cooking course that frowns upon brownies? The times, they are a changin'.
"I would love to get to a point where the delicate application will allow for more specific cuisine," Michael says. "We desperately do not want" to continue overdosing people and furthering the collective fear of eating weed.
He recounts a tale of how a cannabis chocolate company in Colorado didn't realize that THC and cannabinoids are heavy compounds that precipitate to the bottom of liquids, so in their 1,000-bar runs, the first 100 bars would get all of the fun stuff, while the other 900 would have next to nothing.
"Create as many walls to failure as possible," he says cheerfully, turning the steaks.
Beanie Dude is now telling a story about how he once put weed in vanilla extract and "almost killed" his dad, an "old party guy."
The room's laughter is a bit nervous. Perhaps our minds have been changed, and we now see cannabis as something to be handled with a greater degree of care, rather than an end goal of merciless obliteration. Maybe there's a possibility that we could go to a marijuana-enriched three-course dinner at a friend's house and somehow still get to work, alert and functional, the following day.
Michael notes that he has had great success with weed-infused duck fat. And now, I may actually want to try it.