Cooking with cannabis is a precise process. Everything from heating temperature to solvent can affect the way cannabis will cook, and how it will affect the body. However, to understand the science of cooking with cannabis, it helps to have a basic understanding of the chemical compounds that make up the marijuana plant, as well as the ways in which these (and other) compounds are metabolized and digested by the human body when combined with foods.
As you’re probably aware, THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive chemical compound in cannabis. However, when ingested orally, THC is not readily digested by the human body. Instead, it must be extracted into complementary compounds that the body recognizes and is able to metabolize.
What Are Cannabinoids?
Interestingly, cannabinoids are a group of compounds present in the cannabis plant, and which also occur naturally in the nervous and immune systems of humans and animals. For clarity’s sake, some scientists in the field prefer to call the cannabinoids found in natural plant compounds phytocannabinoids and those found in natural animal compounds endocannabinoids.
What Do Cannabinoids Do?
In the human body, these naturally occurring chemicals help control mental and physical processes. In the cannabis plant, they are the compounds responsible for extracting and distributing THC‘s unique physiological properties.
The natural cannabinoids produced in our bodies bind with specifically designed nervous-system receptors (not coincidentally named cannabinoid receptors) which are responsible for regulating our nervous-system responses such as: mood, appetite, pain sensation, inflammation response and memory. Because of the way THC affects the nervous system, there are numerous medical and health benefits to cooking with cannabis – it can be used to reduce pain, stimulate appetite and reduce anxiety. When combined with the phytocannabinoids in marijuana, these receptors are affected.
In other words, the cannabinoid receptors found naturally in our bodies (CB1 and CB2, if you want to get technical) are recognized and targeted by the cannabinoids in cooked marijuana. When properly extracted, the cannabinoids bind and THC’s psychoactive effects are brought out. (We like to think this makes a pretty good case for cooking with cannabis. Our bodies have already prepared!)
How to Properly Extract THC
As you’ll remember, THC is the main psychoactive chemical compound in cannabis. It needs to be delivered to the nervous-system by the cannabinoids. But THC is a hydrophobic oil and, as such, is insoluble in water. Therefore, in order be properly converted, it must be extracted into fats, oils or alcohol, all of which can bind with the cannabinoids to properly deliver the compound to the body.
Cook Cannabis Slowly!
Because THC is a somewhat delicate compound it must be slowly combined with butter or oil over fairly low heat (210 degrees Celsius, 401 degrees Fahrenheit) so that it does not break down and vaporize. This is why cannaoils and cannabutters must be cooked for a long period of time. The solvent must slowly absorb the cannabinoids into the fat molecules which will then act as a vehicle for the THC. These fats also aid absorption in the gut. When digested, these cannabinoid-infused fat molecules bind with our buddies, the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 to distribute the now infused THC.
Infused oils and butters are the most common ways to cook with cannabis. Once you’ve mastered the art of a great cannabutter or cannaoil, you can cook cannabis into virtually anything calling for these ingredients. They are simply substituted in dishes that would call for regular oil or butter. Delicious!