Did you know?
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.
Extract or essence?
It’s all the same. Vanilla extract or essence is the result of several delicate procedures. Pods are picked as they begin to ripen, boiled, left to ferment and dry in the sun. Drying causes a white crystal dust or frost to appear on the pods… vanillin. This will be extracted by soaking pods in alcohol, then brewing or infusing them with sweet syrup. So it is normal to read the words “water”, “alcohol” and “sugar” on the list of ingredients. The proportions of these three ingredients vary from one producer to the next.
Real vanilla, called pure or natural, is derived from the fermented and dried fruit of a tropical orchid called Vanilla planifolia or vanilla. Its aromatic compound is vanillin. Vanilla comes in several forms: pod, powder, white or brown liquid extracts. For real vanilla, look for the words “Vanilla planifolia”, “pure vanilla” or “natural vanilla” on the label. If you don’t see these words, you are likely looking at a product that contains artificial vanillin.
It contains synthetic vanillin derived from eugenol (clove oil). It is widely used in the cooking and baking industry. Its scent and flavour lack the finesse of natural vanilla. It is usually three times cheaper than pure vanilla.
Pods: the real deal
If you want to be completely certain of what you’re putting in a recipe, nothing is better than to flavour with vanilla pods. They are long, dark brown and mostly sold in gourmet food stores. Replace 5 ml (1 tsp) of pure liquid vanilla essence with 2.5 cm (1 in) of a pod. Cut in half with a knife and gently scrape the insides to dislodge the seeds. Add the seeds and pod to the cold liquid called for by the recipe. Gently heat a few minutes to infuse and then remove the pod.
White or brown?
It is called white vanilla though it is, in fact, colourless. It is used in mixtures that must remain white, such as meringue and angel food cake. Like other extracts, vanilla always starts out colourless. It becomes brown after being coloured with sugar.
Cake, egg desserts, tapioca, yogurt, ice cream… are flavoured with vanilla. The little black seeds you see in some ice creams are a sign of quality. Vanilla enhances sweetness while reducing the acidity of tropical fruits such as mangoes and papayas. For a while now, it has found an affinity with fish, seafood, poultry and other salty dishes.
Pods can be reused up to four times after being rinsed, then blotted and left to dry for 30 minutes on a paper towel. They can be stored in their tube. When you’re finished with them, stick the pods in a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar. You should store liquid vanilla and pods in the pantry, the coolest place. Unlike ground spices (the taste changes over time), the scent of liquid vanilla does not evaporate when the bottle is firmly closed. As for pods, they react badly to humidity in a fridge.
Keep an eye on the wording: a vanilla-flavoured product owes its flavour to natural vanillin while a vanillin-flavoured product contains synthetic vanillin.