It’s often been said that cannabis makes you hungry, but what if you want to work the substance into your food?

Since cannabis has been legalized for recreational usage in Maryland, “cannabis curious” residents are stepping forward: A Goucher College Poll conducted in partnership with The Baltimore Banner found that 1 in 6 Maryland residents said they are now more likely to use weed recreationally.

While smoking and vaping are some of the most common methods of usage, infusing food with cannabis can add a relaxing effect to a quiet evening at home — and bring new possibilities for culinary exploration.

Maryland-born chef Solomon Johnson is a vocal proponent of using cannabis in cooking and uses it in his own creations. He was crowned as a champion on “Chopped 420″ — a cooking competition show on which weed or CBD has to be a part of the ingredients — and often hosts private dinners in the San Francisco area that feature cannabis in as many forms as Johnson can dream up.

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He’s used the kief from cannabis buds in a fried chicken dredge, tempura fried cannabis leaves as a garnish, used the extracted terpenes — the wide array of fragrant chemical components found in cannabis and other plants — to finish desserts, and added the raw ground flower into a wide variety of food products for its flavor alone.

Ingesting cannabis has obvious effects of euphoria and relaxation, but Johnson says he just sees it as another tool in his culinary arsenal.

“I’m a chef who loves cannabis, I’m not a cannabis chef,” Johnson said. “I treat cannabis the same way I treat any other ingredient in the pantry. I figure out how to manipulate it, how to enhance it, and try to make it as palatable and presentable of a food product as possible for my food clientele base.”

Because THC (the primary chemical in cannabis that gives its psychoactive effects) is fat-soluble and will cling best to fatty foods, Johnson said that means it’s easy to create a versatile and flavorful oil or butter for use in sauces, dressings or glazes. It can also be used as a finishing oil for pizzas, meats or grilled vegetables. The chef’s go-to item on “Chopped 420″ was a garlic- and cannabis-infused olive oil he incorporated into his entrees. These days, though, he usually treats himself to a bowl of ramen or a few sushi rolls that he’s medicated with a cannabis-infused Sriracha.

Controlling the dosage

Johnson’s biggest warning for first-time edible users is to begin with a low dosage of THC; infusing cannabis into food can ruin your day if you’re not careful.

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“I think that’s the biggest thing with cooking with cannabis: People are very wary of the overconsumption of THC because it can be a very overwhelming process to go through,” Johnson said. “If you’ve eaten an edible that’s stronger than you originally intended it to be — especially for new people — it can be a little scary.”

Chef Will Parks, who hosts cooking with cannabis classes around Baltimore and Central Maryland as Saucier Willy, said the liver processes THC differently when it’s consumed rather than smoked. This can give a pleasing full-body feeling of relaxation and calm, but it can also have detrimental side effects, like increased anxiety. The most important step is to start slow.

“Always start out with less — less is always more,” Johnson said.

Chef Solomon Johnson at The Bussdown DC, his Pan-African food stall in Washington’s Western Market. (Haldan Kirsch)

Parks recommends starting with a meager two or three milligrams of THC added to food to test how your body will react to the effects. From there, you can carefully scale up and find your preferred dosage. Doing so will take some math, though.

Johnson says the easiest way to approximate an amount of THC per serving is to start with an eighth of an ounce (or 3.5 grams) of cannabis flower. Find the total THC percentage on the packaging (say, 25%) and add a zero to that number to find the number of total milligrams per gram of that flower (in the case of 25% flower, that would be 250 milligrams of THC per gram). So that gram of 25% THC cannabis, when infused into a dish, would yield 10 servings with 2.5 mg of activated THC.

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Obviously, the easiest way to accurately calibrate the THC content is with a scale that can measure to the gram and milligram, but there are also THC calculator apps available online. Strib’ble Treats Homemade Sweets founder LaWann Stribling recommends using an edible dosage calculator.

How to pick the right cannabis

When it comes to the majority of cooking ingredients, there might be a few variations, but for the most part you know what you’re getting. This does not hold true for cannabis. Not only does each strain have varying quantities of THC and other cannabinoids, but it can also have wildly different terpene content.

Terpenes are the chemical compounds that affect the way the cannabis smells, and to a certain degree, what flavor it will add to a prepared food. Parks says that cannabis shares many terpenes with other common culinary ingredients like bay leaves, cardamom and rosemary.

Parks said most of the time cannabis is going to add a smoky, nutty flavor to whatever it’s prepared with because of the decarboxylation process (we’ll get to that). Foods with chocolate and nuts often pair well with this flavor, but it can also be masked by other ingredients if it’s too pungent, and will pair just as well with savory dishes as desserts.

Stribling also recommends journaling after each experience with cannabis. She says this will help consumers find the strain and qualities that match their ideal experience.

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How to decarboxylate cannabis

Decarboxylate is a big science-y word that just means cannabis needs to be lightly toasted before using it in an infusion. The THC, CBD and other cannabinoids in raw cannabis are essentially inactive compounds until they’re exposed to heat. When using cannabis in an edible, it will need to be cooked lightly beforehand to have any desired medicinal or psychoactive effects. The key to this process is to take it slow. Rushing can burn the cannabis which will not only result in an acrid smell, but can ruin most of the desired chemical compounds.

Parks says the easiest way to do this is to use a Mason jar and an oven. By putting the cannabis into the Mason jar it will trap any terpenes and contain the smell of the cannabis. It’s also a convenient vessel that requires minimum cleanup. Just grind the cannabis, put it into a closed Mason jar, and put it on the middle rack of a 240-degree preheated oven for 60 minutes. Let the jar cool completely before opening it, and the cannabis is ready for any kind of edible infusion.

Now that you’ve decarbed your flower, you’re ready to make your own infusion, tincture, or culinary delight at home. Parks has several recipes on his website that you can try, and you can find many more by searching online.

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