Cannabis

How to Choose Edibles Like You Totally Know What You’re Doing

cannabutter vs concentrate
Jason Hoffman / Thrillist

You stroll into your local dispensary and encounter a buffet of edibles, ranging from chocolates to sodas. But your squinting eyes glaze over words like “extract,” “distillate,” and “full flower” on the labels. What does it all mean, and how do you decide what to get?

Whether you’re a brownie veteran or a cookie rookie, your understanding of modern edibles terminology might need an update. The thing is, as more and more states legalize recreational marijuana, regulations over potency are changing the way companies make cannabis confections. 

So save your glazed eyes for your future high; here’s what you need to know before you chow down those gummies, lollipops, and blondies. First of all, there are two basic ways to get cannabis into an edible: full flower cannabutter and concentrated extract.

Cannabutter vs. Extracts

Let’s start with cannabutter*. You may have heard cannabis, in its natural state, referred to as “flower.” The age-old method of making cannabutter involves infusing butter (or oil) with this flower before adding it to, say, brownies or your college roommate’s vegan ration bricks. 

Extracts (or concentrates or distillates), on the other hand, are refined distillations of cannabinoids typically made in a lab, often via heat or naturally occuring chemicals. That sounds a little ominous, but you already know a popular wellness extract: CBD, or cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive, non-intoxicant compound. THC compounds can also be extracted, separate from CBD if desired.

Full flower means full (and varied) effect

Full-spectrum or full-flower cannabutter doesn’t just give you THC and CBD realness; the flower contains many other cannabinoids and terpenes that can have a range of effects. “When you’re cooking with a full flower, you’re getting a full spectrum of cannabinoids,” says Bong Appetit co-author Elise McDonough. “There’s up to 400 cannabinoids, some of which we know a lot about and some of which we know very little about. But when you’re cooking with flower, you’re getting all of that.”

What’s more, says Pete Feurtado Jr., CEO of popular cannabis edible company Big Pete’s Treats, “not every 10 milligrams is made the same.” And that means your experience with a given edible from the same company may vary.

Extracts mean more control and uniformity

Though some companies like Big Pete’s Treats are holding onto their full-flower, cannabutter recipes, the industry has moved towards the more consistent, uniform extracts. These lab-derived concentrates can dial in specific cannabinoids, which improves a company’s ability to target certain effects (though broad-spectrum distillates are possible as well). “You’ll get similar effects to what you would get from a full spectrum flower," says McDonough. That said, she adds, “you’re gonna get, in my opinion, what’s a much more one-dimensional effect from isolated THC versus a full-spectrum infusion into butter or oil.”

The argument for cannabutter: bioavailability

You’ll notice on the ingredients list that many edibles contain some kind of fat, whether it’s butter or oil, to increase the weed’s bioavailability — how easy it is for your body to absorb the feel-good cannabinoids. Marijuana, the cat of the recreational drug world, doesn’t play nice with water, so it needs fat to fully deliver the effects you seek.

“Humans have been digesting butter for millennia … The human body understands what to do with butter, how to process it,” says Jesse Burns, Marketing Director at Colorado’s Sweet Grass Kitchen. “Cannabutter products are gonna be a fuller effect, a more robust effect, more of that body high that consumers are looking for in an edible product.”

Fuertado agrees with Burns’ sentiments, citing testimonial evidence from his customers of longer highs with their cannabutter products. Big Pete’s Treats and Sweet Grass Kitchen are among the few businesses sticking with traditional cannabutter in an industry that increasingly favors extracts.

“My dad went to Oaksterdam University in 2009 and he learned how to make cannabutter there,” says Fuertado of Big Pete’s founder (yes, there is a literal marijuana college). “People loved our cookies since day one, so we never wanted to make a change.”

The case for extracts: consistency

Even though Big Pete’s Treats have managed to ace 99 percent of their regulatory tests for consistent potency, most edible chefs don’t want to leave anything to chance. In fact, everyone we talked to for this piece agreed that it’s far easier to pass lab tests using extracts.

“The fact that it’s so reliable is the most important to us because our key users are really expecting the same effect and potency every time, so that’s what we deliver by using the distillate that we use,” says Rachel King, 36, Culinary Director of Kaneh Co. before acknowledging a taste trade-off. “In the beginning, we did use a full-spectrum oil, but we did find that although the benefits are wonderful, the tastes were not as wonderful.”

But how do the tastes compare?

Burns mentions that a big reason Sweet Grass Kitchen uses butter for their baked goods (they do use extracts for their gummy products) is for its ability to mask the flavor of the cannabis. With high medical doses, a stronger taste will come across simply as a result of volume, but it’s generally not that noticeable.

With extracts, the intense process that creates them actually removes quite a lot of flavor. Some companies, however, add the cannabis flavor back (!) to the extracts because some longtime users prefer an in-your-face taste for other concentrate products like tinctures. Your extract-based edible experience will depend on a middleman extract supplier, but it should be at least on par with cannabutter edibles’ flavor potency: minimal.

It’s important to note that while some companies use oil to mix their extracts, others do not. You find these fatless edibles typically in the form of gummies and drinks. These tend to have the least noticeable cannabis taste (if any at all), but as you’ve just learned, you may not feel the effects of the cannabinoids as strongly because your body may not absorb them completely.

Should you trust homemade edibles?

“The regulations have really affected the diversity of products that used to be available,” says McDonough, nostalgically remembering the exhaustive edible offerings of medical marijuana California. “There’s a lot of stuff that you just can’t legally make now, so you’re seeing that stuff continue to be made by people in their home kitchens, which is fine, but it’s a lot harder to get accurate dosage when you’re working at home.”

Sweet Grass Kitchen is trying to help Colorado’s home chefs with that. They recently started selling 100 milligram sticks of cannabutter with 10 pats working out to 10 milligram doses each. There are many variables that go into making cannabutter at home, so taking the guesswork out of it could keep the use of cannabutter alive, even if only in private.

If you’re already an experienced homemade edibles connoiseur and have a fairly high tolerance, you’re probably fine cooking with cannabis from home, McDonough tells me. “But if you’re somebody who’s brand new to using cannabis and who has never eaten an edible before, I would advise starting with something that comes from a licensed dispensary.”

Whether they’re made with extracts or cannabutter, edibles are known for their intensity and delayed effects. As long as you enjoy them safely, choosing between processes is just a matter of taste.

*Cannabutter is simply butter or oil infused with cannabis, regardless of whether it’s made with extract or flower. For clarity, mentions of cannabutter throughout this piece will reference the traditional, full-flower method.

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J. Fergus is a lifestyle writer known for food, alcohol, cannabis, and tech coverage — the modern rhombus of vices. Their words have graced the likes of Foodbeast, Tastemade, The Manual, and Chowhound. Their words have also been known to disgrace Twitter.