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When someone’s ordinary, when nothing’s remarkable, if something lacks imagination or is completely predictable, it’s often called “vanilla.”
“It’s pretty vanilla,” “that’s pretty vanilla,” “how vanilla”…
Yet, pure vanilla gives us one of the most complex tastes in the world, having well over 250 organic components creating its unique flavor and aroma.
As a chef, I’m often asked what type of vanilla I use in my baking. In reality, there are rhymes and reasons to my final choices. Sometimes it is intended use, sometimes taste and occasionally it’s a purely economic choice. They’re all valid.
For example, an imitation vanilla is perfectly acceptable when it’s in the recipe as a background flavor, such as in chocolate brownies. But when the flavor of the recipe IS vanilla (ice cream, panna cotta, crème brulee), buy the best you can afford, and buy a flavor you like.
Originally, everyone used vanilla beans when baking. Actually, vanilla extract has been commercially available for a little more than 100 years. The first extracts were made at drug-store-like shops and were more like syrup. They were very strong, very sweet and often used to calm upset stomachs rather than to bake cookies.
So, how do you decide which vanilla to buy? Your choices up until now may have been whatever the recipe said to use.
The following list explains more about the products on the shelf. You may want to experiment some to decide which appeals to you.
Pure Vanilla Extract
There are about 150 varieties of vanilla beans, though only two are used commercially: Bourbon and Tahitian. Vanilla extract is made by percolating or soaking chopped vanilla beans in ethyl alcohol and water, like making tea. The process is usually kept as cool as possible and usually takes anywhere from two days to a week before being filtered into a holding tank, where the amber-colored liquid extract remains until bottling. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a minimum of 13 to 35 ounces of vanilla beans to a gallon of liquid, which must be a minimum of 35-percent alcohol to 65-percent water. It can have more than 35-percent alcohol but not less.
The extract may also contain sugar, corn syrup, caramel, colors, or stabilizers, but all ingredients must be on the label, even though their percentages need not be listed.
Vanilla extracts continue to develop additional flavor and character for a couple of years after bottling. Some manufacturers actually hold back their bottled extracts from the market for a year or so to ensure the flavor is well developed. Once purchased, they will keep almost indefinitely, as long as they’re stored in a cool, dark place, such as a pantry or cupboard that’s away from the stove or bright sun. Refrigeration is not recommended.
Comparing extract quality is a lot like comparing many carefully crafted and aged beverages. Like wines and some alcohols, there’s a big difference between swill and a quality product.
Part of the difference is starting with a quality raw product, then following with technically sound and experienced artisans using minimal additives, and finally, (perhaps) some aging.
Not all vanilla extracts are destined for recipe greatness.
Varieties of Pure Vanilla Extracts
- Mexican Vanilla is a very smooth, creamy, spicy vanilla. It’s especially good in desserts made without heat or with a short cooking time. Dark chocolate, cream desserts, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, ethnic foods, wild game, poultry and meat all benefit from Mexican vanilla.
- Bourbon Vanilla originated in Mexico, vanilla’s birthplace, but cuttings were taken to other tropical countries beginning in the 1700s. In the 1800s, the French developed large plantations known then as the Ile de Bourbon, which is how the name Bourbon came into being. Although vanilla extract is high in alcohol content, it is not made from Bourbon whiskey. We carry whole, Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans at Nino’s.
Bourbon and Mexican vanillas have the familiar natural vanilla flavor we associate with vanilla ice cream and other vanilla-flavored desserts and beverages. Use Bourbon vanilla in baked goods, ice cream and anything where a traditional vanilla flavor is desired.
- Indonesian Vanilla can be much like Bourbon vanilla (depending on how it’s cured and dried), or it can have very distinctive differences. Frequently, Indonesian vanilla is blended with Bourbon vanilla to create a signature flavor. Indonesian vanilla tends to hold up well in high heat, so anything slow-baked or exposed to high heat (i.e. cookies) benefits from it. Indonesian vanilla is also quite good with chocolate, as its flavor overrides the sweetness of chocolate and gives it a beneficial flavor-boost. Chocolate’s popularity is due, in part, to the sparkle it receives from other flavors as it tends to be somewhat dull on its own.
- Tahitian Vanilla comes from Mexican vanilla stock that was taken to Tahiti. Somehow it mutated, possibly in the wild. It is now classified as a separate species, as it’s considerably different in appearance and flavor from Bourbon vanilla. Tahitian vanilla is sweeter and fruitier and has less natural vanillin than Bourbon and Mexican vanilla. Instead, it contains a property unique to its species, which gives it a more cherry-like, licorice, or raisiny taste. It has a very floral fragrance, the bean is fatter and moister than Bourbon vanilla, and it contains fewer seeds in its pod. Tahitian is especially nice in fruit compotes and desserts as well as in sauces for poultry, seafood and wild game.
Because all vanilla beans are very labor-intensive to harvest, vanilla is expensive. In order of expense, Tahitian vanilla is nearly always at the top, with Bourbon next and other generic Mexican vanillas toward the bottom.
Natural Vanilla Flavor
People who prefer not to use an alcohol-based extract can substitute the natural vanilla flavor found in natural and specialty food stores and some supermarkets. It’s usually made with a glycerin or a propylene glycol base. Although the flavor comes from vanilla beans, it doesn’t fit the FDA profile for extracts, so it must legally be called natural vanilla flavor.
Imitation Vanilla (We have it at Nino’s!)
Imitation vanilla is a mixture made from synthetic substances, which imitate the natural vanilla smell and flavor. Imitation vanilla in the United States comes from synthetic vanillin, which mimics the flavor of natural vanillin, one of the components that gives vanilla its extraordinary bouquet.
The two most common sources for synthetic vanillin have been Lignin Vanillin, a by-product of the paper industry that has been chemically treated to resemble the taste of pure vanilla extract, and Ethyl Vanillin, which is a coal-tar derivative and frequently far stronger than either Lignin Vanillin or pure vanilla.
Ground Vanilla Beans (We have them at Nino’s!)
Vanilla beans ground to a fine powder are sometimes confused with vanilla powder. Ground vanilla beans are sometimes used in commercial and industrial products. Ground vanilla is absolutely exquisite in food. Because it isn’t in an alcohol carrier, you won’t lose flavor when you cook or bake with it. As a result, you can use about half the amount of beans as with extracts!
Vanilla Powder (We have it at Nino’s!)
There are several types of vanilla powders commercially available. Most are sugars that have been sprayed with vanilla extract. They’re good for putting into beverages and sprinkling on finished foods, such as toast, cakes or desserts.
Vanilla Paste (We have it at Nino’s!)
Vanilla paste is a sweet, concentrated vanilla extract that has the vanilla bean seeds included in the mix. It is very useful in cooking when you don’t want to add much additional liquid.
Vanilla absolute is the most concentrated form of vanilla. It is often used in perfumes and other aroma-based products. Because it’s so expensive, most candles, soaps and other scented specialty items are made from synthetic vanillin. Vanilla absolute is used in very high-end products in small quantities, such as mixed with other fragrances in perfumes.
Vanilla flavor strength is measured and then indicated by the word “Fold” (single fold, double fold, etc.). Single fold (written 1x) is the standard concentrate of pure vanilla extract. Double fold (2x) is twice as strong, and so forth. Concentrations can go up to 20-fold, but the extract isn’t real stable above four-fold.
Want to make your own vanilla extract? It’s simple!
Homemade Vanilla Extract
Makes 2 Cups (for under $10.00!)
2 Whole Vanilla Beans
1 ½ Cups Mild Brandy or Light Rum
½ Cup Water
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
- In a 3-cup glass container with a tight-fitting lid, combine the vanilla beans with the brandy or rum.
- Cap and allow to stand at room temperature 3 weeks.
- Remove the beans and strain liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth into a bowl, if necessary.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the water and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and cool. Stir into vanilla mixture. Pour mixture into a bottle cap and allow to stand at room temperature 1 month.