Vanilla comes from the orchid vanilla planifolia. The vanilla bean is the seed pod of the orchid and the flavor comes from it's many tiny seeds inside the pod. The seed pods go through extensive processing and curing before they become the substance so familiar to most of us. Once harvested by hand, the vanilla beans are boiled in water, then allowed to heat in the sun. The beans are then wrapped in blankets to allow them to sweat. This curing process of sun-heating by day, and sweating at night goes on for 3 to 6 months until the beans shrink by 400% of their original weight.
Vanilla is pronounced [vuh-NIHL-uh; vuh-NEHL-uh]. This short article is intended to answer many FAQ (frequently asked questions) about the worlds most popular flavoring. There are many excellent articles on the web that describe, in-depth, the cultivation and processing of the vanilla orchid (see bibliography below). We simply want to provide the home chef with information about the various forms of vanilla, how to use them and how to substitute one for the other.
The most confusion about vanilla products is due to the various terms associated with the products. We offer short factual information about each term.
In the truest sense the term essence refers to the substance in the vanilla that contains the essential vanilla flavor. The essence is extracted from the bean in alcohol to make vanilla extract. Unfortunately the term is also used to describe artificial vanilla flavoring.
Pure implies natural not artificially derived. Pure vanilla extract is made by "percolating" chopped vanilla beans with ethyl alcohol and water. Manufacturers may use a variety of types and qualities of beans. The process of extraction takes about 48 hours then the mixture is placed in tanks from anywhere from a few days to several weeks. The aged mixture is then filtered, placed in holding tanks and eventually bottled.
Pure extracts may still contain some sugar, corn syrup, caramel, colors as well as stabilizers. Pure vanilla extracts must contain at least 35% alcohol. FDA requirements are a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans to a gallon of a minimum of 35% alcohol to 65% water mixture.
A natural vanilla flavoring is derived from vanilla beans but has little or no alcohol typically a maximum of 2% - 3%. This is a product preferred by many people not wanting to use alcohol based extracts. Flavorings may also have some sugar and a glycerin or a propilene (polyproylene) glycol base*. Flavorings are commonly used in cooking and baked goods both at home as well as in commercial establishments.
*Glycerin and propilene (polyproylene) glycol are FDA approved food additives.
Vanillin is an organic crystal that forms on the outside of the vanilla bean and it is the compound that gives vanilla its characteristic flavor.
U.S. manufactured artificial vanilla is produced from synthetic "vanillin", Lignin Vanillin, which is made from a by-product of the paper producing industry. This by product is chemically treated to mimic the flavor of vanilla. The product help take care of a ecological problem with paper producers and created an "affordable" vanilla flavoring for the public.
The other synthetic common in Mexican artificial flavorings is Ethyl Vanillin derived from coal tar.
A concentrated vanilla extract that contains vanilla seeds.
Dark and finely ground beans are available commercially as well as for the home chef. The ground beans are twice as strong as extract so use half the amount called for in a recipe.
A fine off-white powder made of sucrose or dextrose (sugars) laced with vanilla. They dissolve well and are perfect for use in beverages or mixed with granulated or powdered sugar for making "vanilla sugar". There are "synthetic" vanilla powders so read your label carefully.
The Aztecs shared their secrets of how to make vanilla with the Spaniards. It was taken back to the old world and it grew to become the most popular flavoring in the world.
Mexico originally had some of the best vanilla available and still does today but in very small quantities. Good quality Mexican vanilla extract and whole beans are expensive. Make sure to buy products from a reliable source.
Coumarin is a the bad guy of the vanilla industry. It is derived from the Brazilian tonka bean from Dipteryx ordorata, a tree. The bean can be used to make flavoring very similar to vanilla. Sadly the concoction is dreadfully toxic and can cause liver damage and is a known carcinogen.
Coumarin is used extensively in synthetic vanillas manufactured in Mexico. The U.S. banned imports of the coumarin laced products back in the 1950's. Unfortunately the products still make their way into the U.S.
If you purchase any Mexican vanilla make sure it is clearly labeled "coumarin free".
Most of the vanilla extracts that come to the US from Mexico are synthetic. The best way to determine quality is price. If you are offered a large bottle for a cheap price it is most assuredly a synthetic product. Also, real vanilla is not "clear". No matter what the label may tell you if it is clear it is synthetic.
True vanilla is amber colored. Synthetics tend to be dark and murky either from the coal tar from which they are produced or from caramel and red food colorings.
Mexico today still uses coumarin in much of its vanilla products. Lacking strict labeling laws as we have in the U.S., Mexican manufactured products may not list accurate ingredients. Again, purchase from a reliable source and steer clear of those large "bargain" sized bottles found all over Mexico.