You may feel squeamish about chomping down insects with their eyes, legs, and antennae still intact, but would you eat insects if they were disguised in butter and sugar-filled cookies? We baked chocolate chip cookies made from pulverized insects and brought them to our office where our brave coworkers tasted them.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
A little background: Robbie and Lauren live in the same city and belong to a small coworking space. Our fellow coworkers belong to a number of professions: writing, programming, human resources, tutoring, accounting, and all manner of consulting. And it turns out that they're up for just about anything, including eating cookies made from powdered bugs.
Each Friday, our office has a happy hour, and sometimes someone will bring in some special food for everyone to enjoy. And we've been talking a bit at io9 about Westerners eating insects. We've looked at the history of entomophagy. We've talked to entomologists about it. We've seen educators urge us to think of the environmental and food security benefits. Lauren even made (and ate) waxworm tacos. So we thought, why not bake up some insect flour cookies and bring them to happy hour? No, really. We thought this was a brilliant idea.
We purchased three different types of insect flour for our little culinary experiment: pure cricket flour from Thailand Unique, pure locust flour from Thailand Unique, and Bitty Baking Flour. The first two are made entirely from insects that have been roasted and powdered, but the last item on that list isn't pure cricket flour. Bitty is a San Francisco-based startup that is looking to make entomophagy a bit more accessible. All of their products contain cricket flour, including their pre-made cookies. But the main ingredient in their baking flour is actual cassava flour, and the mix also includes coconut flour, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum. It's considered paleo.
The most expensive part of this process was the shipping from Thailand Unique, which is in, well, Thailand. But even in the last couple of months, pure cricket flour has become easier and cheaper to obtain. You can purchase different types and flavors of cricket flour from Portland-based Cricket Flours and even order a bag of Thailand Unique's stuff through Amazon.
Neither of us is terribly well versed in baking chemistry, so we relied on recipes that we found on the Internet. We used Cricket Flours' Vanilla Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe for the pure cricket and pure locust flour, which meant combining our powdered bugs with wheat flour, butter, sugar, brown sugar, eggs, baking soda, baking powder, and vanilla extract. For the Bitty Baking Flour, we used Bitty's own Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, although we modified it a bit; Bitty's recipe is paleo-friendly, but in order to make the cookies as similar as possible, we substituted butter for coconut oil and cane sugar for coconut sugar. (This may have been foolhardy, as you'll see later.) We also baked a set of non-insect cookies using the boring old Nestlé Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.
The other key ingredient in our endeavor involved far fewer bugs. We bought a few bags of seasonal M&M and divided them into four colors: red, green, hot pink, and pale pink. That way, we could color-code our cookies. Little did we know that we'd be able to distinguish them by smell.
Here's our setup in Lauren's kitchen. You may see Robbie's Vizsla, Lucca, and Lauren's Boxer, Skoda, lurking in the background of these videos. (Robbie would like to apologize for the quality of the video; he was still learning how to use this particular camera.)
So, armed with our ingredients, our recipes, and a standing mixer, we went to work on our cookies. We started simple making the Toll House Cookie recipe. Well, we meant to start simple, but actually we screwed up; we left out the eggs, leaving us with very buttery, but still tasty, cookies.
The dogs stood by just in case we happened to drop something delicious:
Despite our failure with the eggs, we were pretty pleased with how our "control" cookies turned out, so we started digging into the bug flour. But as soon as we tore open the bag of cricket flour from Thailand Unique, we wondered if we had made a terrible mistake:
Robbie's reaction isn't terribly visceral here, but the cricket flour smelled truly awful. And it only smelled more and more like musty leather as we baked with it. Lauren was worried the smell of old shoes was never going to leave her oven. Were we really going to eat this stuff? Were we really going to feed it to our friends?
Fortunately, the locust flour proved far less offensive. It had a mild, rather pleasant, sawdust-like odor. While the smell of crickets started to overpower the kitchen, we actually looked forward to tasting the locust cookies:
Last, and most certainly least, came the Bitty flour. Since it was a baking mix, we expected that the Bitty flour would offer the fewest surprises. We were wrong.
For one thing, the cricket flour and the locust flour were both completely pulverized, but the Bitty flour was filled with thin fibers, which we suspected were from the ground-up cassava. Robbie also thought he saw a not-completely-ground-up bug in the bag, but that turned out to be a false alarm. At least, we think it was:
But the bigger issue is what happened when we baked our Bitty cookies. The cricket and locust cookies may have smelled kind of funky, but they looked like cookies. The dough behaved the way you would expect cookie dough to behave, going from roughly spherical clumps to flat circles. The Bitty cookies did not do that. In fact, they didn't change shape at all. Now, as we mentioned earlier, we did make a couple of substitutions, using butter instead of coconut oil and cane sugar instead of coconut sugar, and perhaps that affected the behavior of the dough. But between the shape and the texture, the cookies were universally dubbed "turds." Sorry, Bitty.
We were, of course, the first taste testers of our handiwork. We tried bits of the dough before we baked the cookies (salmonella be damned) and tried the cookies while they were still warm. We weren't pleased. The locust cookies still reminded us of leather. The locust cookies were inoffensive, but still had a vaguely meaty flavor, as if we had added chicken broth to a standard chocolate chip cookie recipe. The Bitty cookies were dry and gritty, with the taste and consistency of a very sad health food bar. But hey, the plain wheat cookies still tasted great, even if we had forgotten the eggs.
Our next brave tester also tasted the cookies from the oven: first the wheat, then the cricket, then the locust, then the Bitty flour. He wasn't impressed:
Honestly, we felt a bit defeated.
So, the next day, we packed up the cookies and brought them into work. We were not excited. In fact, we spent most of the day managing expectations and ensure our co-spacers that, if they hated the bug cookies, we had plenty of wheat cookies for them to enjoy.
We had already sent out an email explaining what we were up to, and all of our happy hour participants were well aware that most of the cookies contained some insect flour. (Well, almost all of them.) One reason is that we didn't want to trick anyone; we like these people and we didn't want to make them eat insects if they weren't comfortable with the idea. Another is that some people who are allergic to shellfish are allergic to other arthropods; we left a few plain wheat cookies aside for anyone who might have allergies. Otherwise, we didn't tell anyone which cookies were which until they had a chance to try them.
We set up the cookies and set up a piece of paper and a pen next to each plate so that people could write down their impressions. Our community managers set out wine and beer. And after the community managers braved the first round of cookies (and after several Snowpiercer jokes), other people started trying them — and, to our surprise, actually enjoyed them.
Well, some of them.
While the cricket cookies tasted quite terrible straight out of the oven, it turns out that, once they had cooled, they were actually quite palatable. The general consensus was that the cricket cookies were "earthy" but largely inoffensive. If someone with better baking skills than ours tried to mass produce cricket cookies, these folks might try them as a protein-rich alternative to Chips Ahoy. The locust cookies got poor marks on smell, but again, no one was particularly bothered by the taste. We were told they'd probably be better with a dash of cinnamon or ginger. Everyone quickly figured out which cookies were bug-free, but they were, on the whole, fine with a bit of insect flour thrown in.
The only cookies that were universally hated were the Bitty cookies. Our co-spacers had little issue with eating bugs, but if they were going to eat insect cookies (or any cookies, really), they wanted them to taste good. Even loaded with M&Ms, the Bitty cookies simply did not taste good in their opinions. We suspect that more than a few landed in Skoda's mouth.
Here's one of our co-spacers who kindly agreed to taste the cookies on camera. He starts with the Bitty cookie, then moves on to the cricket cookie, the locust cookie, and the plain wheat cookie. Oh, and he paired them with a Lagunitas IPA, for science. (We apologize for the audio. Filming in a loud room, never again.)
Here is another of our co-spacers doing the taste taste. He starts with the Bitty cookie, then tries the locust, then the cricket, then the plain wheat:
And here are the comments our co-spacers wrote down:
Comments — Dark Pink M&Ms (Locust Flour)
- Smell: Sort of like a dog treat
Taste: Mild, "different" almost earthy bland
- I don't like the initial taste.
- A lot like a gingerbread cookie
- This one tastes like fish food or spirulina.
- TASTY & CHOCOLATY
Comments — Light Pink M&Ms (Cricket Flour)
- Still smells like a dog treat
- Taste is sweeter than "Dark Pink," similar taste. Complemented better by the M&Ms.
- Moist, doesn't smell great, good taste
- I could eat these.
- This one is less grainy than the green one, but it has a bitter aftertaste.
- My favorite, best texture
- Earthy — like it — maybe too sweet
Comments — Green M&Ms (Wheat Flour)
- A little salty tasting [Ed. note: We like salt. We maybe put too much in our cookies.]
- A good cookie.
- That's nice, salty + sweet, doesn't taste like a dog treat
- Can taste salt + butter in this one.
- I'd say this is a real cookie.
- A bit crunchy and grainy and salty, but pretty good!
- Pretty good, but a bit of a granulated texture. [Ed. note: Would the bug cookies have been better received if Lauren owned a sifter? Her mother would be so disappointed.]
- Regular cookie!
- Very tasty, good crunch. A little salty.
Comments — Red M&Ms (Bitty Flour)
- Musky aroma that I can't pin down. Bad aftertaste.
- Texture is a little grainy, healthy tasting.
- Not as big a fan of this one. Probably the most pungently different.
- Really dry, get extra mushy after a few chews
- Bad aftertaste.
- Blandek — looks like poo poo.
- Dog food
- Granular, powdery
And, while we did try to let everyone know that the cookies contained insects, we were not completely successful on that front. Apparently, one of the office interns didn't check her email — and happens to be a cookie fiend. While we weren't looking, she plucked one of the cricket cookies from a plate, ate it, and then shoved a stack of them into a napkin. She then said good-bye to her (slightly stunned) supervisor and ran out the door before he could explain about the cookies. We received no complaints from her.
I think that our key takeaway from this experiment is that chocolate chip cookies are not the ideal venue for insects. Some time between taking those smelly cricket cookies out of the oven and feeding them to our officemates, it occurred to us that we had made cookies out of meat. We wouldn't have tried making shrimp cookies or chicken cookies, but locust cookies? Why not?
Cookies themselves might not be the problem, though. We had picked chocolate chip cookies somewhat at random, thinking they would be an easy, reliable thing to make with insect flour. Several of our co-spacers suggested that other types of cookies might work better. The locust cookies reminded a lot of people of gingerbread, and perhaps a bit of ginger and molasses might be just thing to make locust flour more palatable. And while she fears for the fresh air in her kitchen, Lauren wouldn't mind trying to use the cricket flour with something that might better mask the odor, like peanut butter.
But the next time we pull out the insect flour, we aren't going to try to turn it into something sweet. If we're going to try baking with animal bits, even if they're from an invertebrate, we're going to try something a bit more savory. Insect bread doesn't sound nearly as awful, and there are all sorts of ingredients we could use to complement the meaty flavors: garlic, onions, rosemary, olives — and maybe a bit of ginger with our locusts.
Thanks to everyone who tasted the cookies and shared their thoughts! You folks are fantastic.