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What is Chicory?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated May 16, 2024
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Widely grown in Europe for its root, chicory is a Mediterranean herb used as a coffee filler or substitute. In North America, this plant, also known as blue-sailors, grows wild. It is a blue-flowered herb with a long white root. The leaves of the plant are known as endive, and are found in salads, as either a vegetable or a green.

The thick chicory root is roasted and powdered to be added to coffee. The origins of adding it to coffee as a filler and flavor enhancer began as early as the 15th century. The tradition spread to the French, and it became common in parts of Europe where coffee could not be grown or because it was cheaper.

Eventually, chicory became quite popular in the U.S., specifically in New Orleans. Unlike coffee, it does not contain caffeine. The root tends to have a flavor like chocolate.

The salad versions of chicory come in broad and curly leafed varieties. The narrow-leaved version is also called curly endive and the broad leafed variety is also known as escarole. The outer leaves are green and have a bitter taste. Inner leaves are lighter in color, even white, and have a mild taste. Endive is often added to blander lettuces in a salad to add flavor.

Chicory roots that are forced to produce blanched, tight heads, are known as Witloof chicory, also called French or Belgian endive. This is blanched and used as a salad vegetable. Chicory leaves, rather than roots, are more commonly used in the U.S. In Belgium, France and Holland, it is frequently a salad vegetable ingredient.

The roots, if stored in the refrigerator, can be kept for several months. When selecting endive heads, cooks should look for a crisp, bright green color, and no brown areas. Chicory greens look similar to dandelion greens, and the young, tender leaves are preferable. When selecting chicons, or chicory heads, shoppers should look for very tight, pure white specimens that are approximately 1 inch (2.54 cm) thick and about 4 inches (10.16 cm) in length. To store endive and greens in the refrigerator, cooks can place them in plastic bags and they will keep for about ten days.

Chicory is purported to have several health benefits, including possibly aiding in digestion. Because it contains a compound called inulin, a soluble fiber, it may assist digestion by aiding the probiotic bacteria in the digestive tract.

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Discussion Comments

By candyquilt — On Oct 26, 2012

Chicory root coffee is really popular in Eastern Europe. They sell the roasted chicory roots in a syrup form that you just mix with hot water to make "chicory coffee." It tastes really good, the flavor is in between coffee and hot chocolate but not as sweet. When you add some cream to it though, it's not too different from coffee.

The best part is that it's caffeine free. I know most Americans love their coffee for the caffeine, but I like chicory coffee too, especially after dinner.

By burcinc — On Oct 25, 2012

@alisha-- Yea, I have been using a natural, zero calorie sweetener for my tea and coffee for the past couple of months that is made from inulin from the chicory plant. I think it's great.

I have diabetes so I can't have sugar and I am afraid of artificial sweeteners because they can cause cancer in the long run. While I was looking for a natural sweetener, I came across this product that is made from chicory. Apparently, the inulin in chicory is sweet but it's indigestible so it doesn't affect blood sugar at all.

I've been using it for several months like I said and it has been working fine for me. I have been checking my blood sugar regularly and I haven't seen any spikes. It's not as sweet as sugar or artificial sweeteners, so I do use a bit more. I'm just happy that it's natural and aids with digestion as well.

By discographer — On Oct 25, 2012

Has anyone heard about chicory inulin as an alternative to natural sweeteners? I think it's a fairly recent finding and I'm curious to know if anyone has tried it.

By Mykol — On Oct 24, 2012

I had no idea that the chicory they use in coffee is from the same plant as the endive I like in my salad. This is a connection that I would have never put together on my own. I like adding endive to my salad because it adds just a little bit of kick to plain lettuce.

By andee — On Oct 23, 2012

When I was looking for a coffee substitute I found out about chicory. This was the first thing I tried that really tasted like coffee and I think it is healthier for you than coffee beans. I buy this at the health food store and it even comes in certain flavors. My favorite one is chocolate mint.

One of the things I really like about chicory is that it does not contain caffeine. I can still get a coffee taste and am also able to take advantage of some of the chicory health benefits.

By honeybees — On Oct 22, 2012

@anon42778-- I can only speak from a personal standpoint, but chicory does not give me any indigestion problems. I have kind of a sensitive stomach so some food will cause me to have problems, but that has never happened with chicory. It may also depend on how it is used. I have a favorite chicory tea that I like to drink after a meal and may actually even help with my digestion.

By anon42778 — On Aug 23, 2009

Does chicory cause indigestion?

By sevenseas — On Jul 30, 2008

Because of its bitter taste, it is not a favorite vegetable with everyone, even though it does have its admirers. If not exposed to light chicory will be less bitter. That goes only for home grown chicory, of course store bought will be exposed to light.

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