elise mcdonough makes weed nerdery brainier + sexier one toke at a time

 Talking to this self-described cannabis utopian, weed mercenary and edibles expert is the equivalent of getting a PhD in farming, science, culinary arts and cutting-edge health, all in one hit. Elise McDonough is a two-time bestselling cookbook author (Bong Appetit and The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook), brand strategist for some of the top cannabis companies on the market and a leading industry voice profiled in The New York Times, Vice, Bon Appetít and The Associated Press. Despite the accolades, expertise and status, she's surprisingly chill (that might be the joints) and insanely informed about the all things grass from taste profiles and delivery systems to how to grow, cook and serve what she's calling a superfood. 

We were lucky enough to land on her calendar and left (not surprisingly) so much smarter about all things cannabis, including how to create your weed bar and how to up your foreplay game using the herb. Want to stoke your own creative and sexual fire? Read on, soak up her smarts, score McDonough's cookbooks and see what magic you can make. 

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elise mcdonough
📸: JUSTIN MCIVOR
What are some myths about weed that you would like to see busted?
Elise McDonough The sativa/indica correlating to effects of the weed when you smoke it. That's got to be pretty high up there for me at this point. It got latched onto as this way to market, because when everybody comes into a dispensary, they want to know how something is going to make them feel. So, that's the first question that people will ask. "How is this going to make me feel?" And so they've over simplified this idea that strains that are sativa genetics make you feel energized, or uplifted, or inspired, or that it has some kind of stimulating quality; while strains that have indica genetics, those are the ones that make you feel chill, or calm, or couch-locked, or relaxed, or body high.
And I think that that might have been true, more true, years and years ago when the genetics was more 100% sativa versus 100% indica, and now basically everything that you're going to find in a dispensary has been hybridized. So, it's this oversimplification that has really embedded itself in cannabis culture and cannabis marketing, but there's just not a lot of science behind it.
That idea that sativas make you uplifted and the indicas will automatically calm you down, that really deserves to be dismantled. And the challenge in dismantling a myth like that is that the reality is so much more complex. So, imagine if you're a budtender, trying to explain this to a customer at a dispensary. People's eyes just glaze over when you start getting into the minutia of weed.
But yeah, I think for people who are curious and who want to really learn, there's definitely a lot of evidence that points to this idea of what they call the entourage effect, or the ensemble effect, which means that a cannabis strain has a unique effect because of the overall composition of all of the cannabinoids in different ratios in relation to each other, along with all of the terpenes and flavonoids that give it its smell and taste. Those chemical components also can contribute to different moods or effects.
cannabis plant + elise mcdonough
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So then what’s the best way to figure out a strain’s effect on you?
Elise McDonough Well, some dispensaries in California that specialize in this kind of weed nerdery will have a lab report, a lab result, that you can either ask them to interpret it for you, or if you're knowledgeable enough about the terpenes on your own, you can look and see that, "Oh, this one has a high percentage of limonene, and limonene strains tastes citrusy, and that's something that I usually find helpful, and that makes me feel stimulated or uplifted."
So, I feel like for people who are brand new, and you walk into a store and it's a store where you are able to actually smell the different strains, usually if something smells really good to you, it'll be pretty appealing and effective. And so, that's a good place to start.
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Would that then associate to making you feel uplifted or not, if you smelled it and it brightens you up, or is it a little more complex and not that easy?
Elise McDonough Well, it's complex because there's a handful of pretty common terpenes, including ones like limonene, and limonene is often found in sativa strains that are associated with having these kind of inspiring or stimulating effects. So, that's one way to get into it if that's the effect that you're looking for.
But everyone responds differently, so I find it's always very good to keep a little notebook. If you're somebody who wants to learn more and become a connoisseur, having a little notebook where you record the effects and the strains and where you bought them, that'll always help you later. I keep a little book like that for wine, sometimes, if I find a good wine that I like.
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You’ve referred to cannabis as being under the umbrella of plant medicines — why you think we should consider it medicine?
Elise McDonough Well, it's interesting. I wrote about this some years ago for High Times. I wrote about the idea of cannabis being basically like a vitamin, like a superfood. And I tend to think of it more in that way. It is, of course, a medicine for people who need it for specific conditions, and I think that even if people think they're using it recreationally, they are getting a lot of medicinal benefits as a side effect of that use.
But I tend to think of it as more as a vitamin, as a vegetable. There are a lot of different ways to use it. And when you think about cannabis and hemp, they've co-evolved with human beings over hundreds of thousands of years, probably. Definitely thousands of years. And there's evidence that supports that idea, that hemp and cannabis were some of the first cultivated crops, and that ancient peoples would trade seeds with each other.
So the hemp plant is incredibly nutritious, and its seeds and its products have the perfect amino acid profile for human needs. So, I like to think of cannabis as a vegetable in the sense that you can dry it and smoke it and have a fun time with it, but you can also use it as a fresh, raw leaf, or as a juice. And you can get a lot of the benefits without the psychoactivity, which some people like.
And especially because people have an endogenous cannabinoid system within themselves, this is just my hypothesis, there's not a whole lot of science to back this up, but there's this idea, this theory, that some people have what's called endogenous cannabinoid deficiency. So, for whatever reason, they're not making enough endocannabinoids on their own naturally. So, a lot of those people will tend to medicate with cannabis or seek it out, and that's just something that really fascinates me.
I think that, hopefully in 10 years or at some point in the future, doctors are going to be able to do more research and sort of understand that, just like they make recommendations for all kinds of other vitamins and nutrients that one day it will be a daily recommended cannabis allowance for your diet.
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That’d be amazing, like a hemp smoothie or something.
Elise McDonough Yeah. I really try to eat a lot of hemp. I've integrated it into my diet for years and years. And yeah, we munch on the roasted hemp seeds, and we use hemp milk, and hemp oils. So yeah, it's really interesting.
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cannabis cookbook + elise mcdonough
📸: 
Marcus Nilsson
What should we look for in terms of taste, ingredients and labels, not just to get the best experience, but also to know which marketing labels are kind of bullshit and which ones are legit?
Elise McDonough Well, there's a lot of hemp products that you're going to find just in your grocery store or at a health food store, and that's just nutritionally good hemp. If you're looking to cook with cannabis and approach cannabis as an ingredient, if you're fortunate enough to live in a state where it's legal, and you're able to grow some of your own in your backyard, then there's a lot of really interesting things you can do with the leaves and the fresh, raw plant. So, considering it as an ingredient, there's the buds that you can use either fresh or dried, which is how most people encounter them. You can make things like ice water hash, or sifted kief, which is sort of like the next level of refining your cannabis. And so, that's a superior ingredient because it has really excellent flavor.
And so, I know cannabis chefs who just put kief into a salt shaker and use it like a spice, you know? It's got this great earthy flavor.
So, that's one of my preferred ways to cook with it. And then, once you get into some of the newer innovations, as far as extract technology, there's just a wide variety of things, like live resin and all sorts of stuff, that just really showcases the flavors of the plant that you can cook with in really beautiful ways. And it's not going to have that sort of grassy, chlorophyll taste that people associate with those weed brownies that you ate in college.
And then, there's a lot of infused ingredients out there now, too, so if you go to the dispensary, sometimes you'll be able to find things like just cannabis-infused coconut oil or olive oil, or even cannabis-infused chocolate you can use as a base ingredient for a recipe to cook at home.
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And so, basically, if they're sold through a dispensary, do you feel like they're pretty legit? Or do you have to read the labels to look for anything special?Elise McDonough If you're buying licensed products from a dispensary in a legal state, it should always be able to tell you the ingredients that are in it. If it's an edible product or a manufactured product, it should be able to tell you the amount of THC or different cannabinoids in milligrams. And if it's a product like hash, or an extract, or flowers, some places will do terpene testing, and you can find out different levels of terpenes. And so, those are all things to kind of check on and look for.

Licensed products would always be a child-resistant packaging, and they've done everything that they can to make it as safe as it could possibly be.
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I was just thinking in terms of the vitamins and supplements we buy, they're not really regulated, so sometimes people can get away with not having what they say is inside. So, I’m curious if the cannabis market is the same way?
Elise McDonough Oh, absolutely. So, yeah. I work at this company called CannaCraft, and they make their products to FDA specifications, even though that's not technically required by the law.
There's a lot of shenanigans out there in the world of unregulated CBD and other cannabinoids. So, that's stuff that you do have to educate yourself on and be careful about. Suppose if you're living in a prohibition state, and you're trying to buy CBD or something on the Internet, or you come across it, I've seen CBD sold at grocery stores and gas stations and gift shops, and all these crazy places. That stuff could have anything in it.
It's not regulated at all. So, you could be getting ripped off. It could not have the amount of CBD that you expected, or that it states on the label. It could be contaminated with something. So, that's a really unregulated world, versus the licensed market for manufacturers and dispensaries in California is very tightly regulated, so you can feel confident with the products that you get at a store like that.
high times cookbook + elise mcdonough
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Are there any off-radar edibles that you're loving right now?
Elise McDonough Oh, there's a lot of really interesting stuff out there right now, both in the regulated and unregulated markets. For instance, a lot of people who were restaurant chefs, or who were in hospitality, who either left their jobs or got laid off during the pandemic, a lot of people that I know anecdotally have started just making edibles on the side. And I have one friend who is a chef, and he makes terp tarts now, just for his own friends and stuff. And so, it's an infused gourmet version of a Pop Tart, and those are amazing. I have some of those in my freezer.
As far as licensed products, I'm really enjoying things not only from CannaCraft, but from friends of mine, like Big Pete's Treats, and they use canna butter in all of their cookies, which gives you kind of a different experience and a different effect, compared to edibles that are just made with distillate.
I've also really been enjoying some of the new savory options that are out there right now, and there's a company called 2Fly that's making infused ketchup and peanut butter and stuff in little packets. Yeah. It's adorable. And it's really convenient if you are just on the go, for people who have different dietary restrictions. And I've always been a big proponent of savory edibles because it shouldn't have to be a dessert every single time. You should be able to integrate it into a healthy lifestyle.
Gummies have kind of taken over the edibles market, and I think there's a lot of great gummies out there. Space Gems are some of my favorite gummies. I use the ABX Sleepy Time gummies a lot, and those are great. But in general, I don't like candy that much. I'm not a kid. I want sophisticated flavors. I like chocolate. So, there's a lot of good stuff out there as far as chocolate goes right now.
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But if we wanted to create a weed bar a home, what kind of edibles should we have on hand?
Elise McDonough That's a great question. My house is like a dispensary inside. It's crazy. I would say it's always good to have some chocolate on hand. It's always good to have some kind of infused olive oil or coconut oil as just a basic ingredient. There's some very cool infused honeys and hot sauces out there right now. There's a company called Potli in California that makes infused Sriracha, which I highly recommend.
So, I think those kinds of things give you a lot of versatility. There's a lot of really cool drinks out there right now, which are always fun to have and experiment with. And so, I'm currently the beverage brand manager at CannaCraft, so we do Hi-Fi Hops and Gem+Jane. And so, that's just a fun, different way to experience the cannabis.
As well as you should always have a variety of flower, or if you're passionate about extracts, that's its own area of intense fandom. But, yeah. A variety of flower, probably, and some different infused options. And yeah, a little bit of hash, and I think you're good to go.
cannabis cookbook + elise mcdonough
📸: Marcus Nilsson, Bong Appetit
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So are there particular flowers you're loving?
Elise McDonough Yeah. I definitely have some favorites that I like to return to again and again. I actually just visited the folks at Sonoma Hills Farm, and they have a signature strain called Pink Jesus that I highly recommend. There's also a very rare strain from this woman — she has a farm called Emerald Spirit Botanicals, and she sells her harvest through Flow Kana, and they do a limited edition every year of this strain called Pink Boost Goddess, and it has a lot of THCV in it. And so, I always make it a point to get that when I can, because THCV is a very interesting cannabinoid, and it gives you a lot of energy and mood-boosting effects, so I personally really like that one a lot.
I'm also a sucker for a strain called GMO, which means garlic mushroom onions. So, it's a really savory strain.
The trend in California for years has been towards these dessert strains, they call them, and they all have names like desserts. There's biscotti and gelato and poundcake and pumpkin pie and all kinds of crazy stuff. So, after years and years of those, which they're all very good and fun and everything, but I do enjoy a nice savory strain, something like the GMO, or something real gassy, like old school OG Kush. I just like to mix it up.
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I've not heard of THCV. Is that kind of a new thing?
Elise McDonough It's considered a minor cannabinoid. We call them rare cannabinoids, and they've been getting some more attention recently. So, I worked on this brand launch for Gem+Jane, which is a sparkling beverage that uses rare cannabinoids to make a microdose drink. And so, we use THCV in two of the formulations. One is a Simply Seltzer that has zero calories, and the other one is Yuzu Raspberry Rose that has 25 calories. And they both have 4 milligrams of THCV… I just love the effect of it. I have a slightly higher tolerance, so I have to drink usually two or three of them, but you get an incredible mood boost. And anecdotally, it has anti-munchy qualities, which is pretty interesting.
So, you can't scientifically substantiate that, so we can't use it in our marketing material, but it's really remarkable. I like it because it's not like I have no appetite, but I'll eat a little bit, and you're not suddenly ravenous with the munchies where you have to eat everything in the house. But yeah, I think it has a lot of potential, and I really wish there would be more research around those effects.
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cannabis cocktail + elise mcdonough
It's also interesting, I'm sure, to experiment with those kinds of base drinks as mixers with cocktails. I'm sure some work and some don't, right?
Elise McDonough Yes. There's definitely a subculture around that... You can't do it in a licensed market, for regulated products it can't combine cannabis and alcohol, so you have to do it yourself at home.
But yeah, there's a ton of potential there for really cool stuff. There's companies out there now that are making cannabis-infused mixers. And there's a lot of different sparkling seltzers and things like Hi-Fi, which is hop-infused sparkling water that's also infused with cannabis. So, we make that in partnership with Lagunitas.
But yeah, the cannabis cocktail revolution is pretty cool, and I just recommend that people be safe and sensible if you're new to it. Some of the horror stories that I hear are people who, they're at a wedding, and they're drunk, and then they eat a weed brownie, and then they have this terrible time. So, you've got to just be smart and go slow when you're combining both substances together.
But yeah, that said, there's a ton of really cool stuff you can do. And in the Bong Appetit Cookbook, what we did was we infused a variety of different kinds of alcohol with cannabis strains, and so, you can do what's called a forced infusion where you use a whipped cream whipper, and you put the alcohol and the cannabis flower in the canister, and you charge it. And what that'll do is it will infuse the alcohol with the aroma and the flavor of the cannabis, but it doesn't really add any psychoactivity.
So, if you want to make it psychoactive, then you have to take that and then de-carb it. You have to be smart when you're doing it because alcohol is flammable and you use an electric range and stuff like that. But you can put the alcohol in a Mason jar and just screw the lids on loosely, and then you put those in a water bath and you simmer it. And then that will de-carb the cannabinoids inside of the alcohol, and it will give it more of a pronounced cannabis flavor, but it'll also infuse the alcohol with psychoactive THC. And so, we described that process in the cookbook and most people want to get really into it.
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Is there anything else we should know before we're cooking and cocktailing with cannabis and experimenting?
Elise McDonough Yeah. The basic safety tips are things like, "Go low and go slow." So, that just means starting with a low dose, and go slow means that you have to wait for at least an hour to two hours for effects to fully manifest in your body because it has to go through your digestive system. Sometimes people will eat a little bit of an edible, and maybe a half an hour later, they're not feeling it, and so then they eat more, and then two hours later they're uncomfortably high because they ate too much. Also, if you're new to it, you just have to go slow and then kind of learn what your tolerance level is.
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If you wanted create this sort of perfect cannabis cocktail and appetizer for a foreplay moment, what recipes would you recommend to kind of lubricate the mood?
Elise McDonough Ooh, recipes. I think something that's really fun is you can, if you buy cannabis-infused chocolate at a dispensary, you can melt it down in your microwave and do a chocolate with strawberries, which is pretty fun and pretty sexy. I think that and a nice joint, a little champagne, that would be pretty sweet.
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We know weed in general is an aphrodisiac, what are some ways to experiment with cannabis and sex or just arousal in general?
Elise McDonough I think the key there is just to use a very small amount. Use the minimum effective dose, whatever that is for you and your partner, because you want to be just slightly stimulated, but you don't want to go too far because then you'll just kind of feel tired, and you'll be too stoned. So yeah, the key is just to keep it really light, and yeah, make it fun, make it relaxing, make it part of a spa night or a date night, and just really set the mood. Take the time to arrange the room, make it beautiful. Maybe have some candles or some incense, or just nice mood lighting I think is always really important. Have a good playlist going.
And I think if your partner gets home and they're really tired from work, just give them a chance to kind of decompress. Maybe take a shower or something, and then kind of come back and set your intentions. I think it's always good when you're using plant medicine to sort of just take a moment, it could be you and your partner, and just say, "Hey, what do we want to get out of this cannabis experience? Are we looking to enhance our intimacy? Are we just kind of looking to relax and unwind?" And that will really help just kind of make the evening just more deep and enjoyable.
I always find cannabis used to be very ritualistic. Everybody has their routine. If you just come home or something, or if you're somebody who tries to acknowledge 420 as often as you can, it definitely has a feeling of ritual to me.
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If we wanted to create a cannabis dinner party just to expand our palate, are there strains you would recommend? How would create the experience?
Elise McDonough Yeah. I mean, there's a variety of ways that you can approach integrating cannabis into hospitality or just at-home dining party experience. I think the main thing to be aware of when you're planning the menu is the tolerance level and the comfort level of your guests. And that's why I always find that infused oils or sauces can really go a long way in making everybody feel comfortable and welcomed.
If there's some people who don't want the food to be infused, you don't have to make separate dishes, but you can just have an alternative infused sauce for the people who want it. I think that's always a really great option. I think that front-loading people with some CBD is usually a good way to go about it. CBD kind of counteracts the psychoactive effects of THC, and it can kind of take the edge off and lessen some of the jitteriness or paranoia that people might feel if they have a lot of THC.
So, one chef I know would serve a CBD appetizer, and then that kind of... You're playing with this psychedelic, psychoactive palate. Another good alternative to infusing all the food is to pair each course with a different joint or a different inhalable experience. That can be really fun.
Some people don't want all of their food infused. Maybe they'll want a little appetizer or a little dessert. It just depends on how hard-partying your crowd is. You got to pace yourself.
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Finally, what question should I be asking you, and what is the answer?
Elise McDonough I like to dream about the future of the cannabis industry. A lot of times people will ask me, "Where do you see this going in five years?" Or whatever. And I think the kind of holy grail of the hospitality experience is an infused restaurant. And in California, they're still not quite there yet as far as doing that in a legal licensed way. But, yeah. I hope that in five to 10 years, we'll see more consumption lounge experiences that will kind of be like a parallel to like the alcohol-soaked bar scene that is ubiquitous.
I was recently in Santa Cruz, and they have a Kava Cafe where they don't serve any alcohol, but you can go get a kava beverage. There's some places that have lounge and kind of consumption experiences, like Moe Greens in San Francisco has a very cool lounge. So, I think we're going to see more of that. And I hope that we're going to see a lot more hash out there. I think America could really turn into more of a hash culture. Once you have more large-scale industrial cultivation, you're able to make really beautiful hash. And if you look at other traditional cannabis cultures, places like Morocco, they don't really smoke a lot of cannabis, but they just process it all into hash and they all smoke hash. And I think we could get there at some point, in five to 10 years, I think.
If you look at the market right now in California, some of the segments that are growing the fastest are things like infused pre-rolls, where it's hash infused into a pre-roll. So, I think you're going to see a lot more things like that. And the experience is slightly different, for sure. You're cutting out a lot of the plant material, including things like the leaves and the stems and the cellulose and the chlorophyll, the things that can make it harsh and kind of have more impact on your lungs.
So, with hash, you're just isolating the trichome heads. So the trichomes are those sparkly little bits that you see all over the buds. And so, when you do that, and you're cutting out a lot of the harsher plant material, it's definitely more potent, and it can be more intense, but it has its own kind of great flavor and character while retaining the characteristic effects of the strain that it came from.
It's definitely more potent. Ice hash is usually around anywhere from like 50% to 60%. Sometimes you see things around 70%. And then when you get into some of the extracts that are made using hydrocarbon solvents, then you can get way up to like 80%, 90%. And those are very, very potent, and you would just use a tiny little bit of it. But yeah, for comparison, really high-end weed is going to top out around 25% to 30%.
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Truffle 📸: Marcus Nilsson, Bong Appetit
What cannabis strains, brands or experiences are you into? 👇💋

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