Are you a baker? Or someone passionate about cakes and puddings? Then surely, you might have come across vanilla extract, one of the important ingredients in baking. And even if you’re not, you still might have heard about the legendary vanilla extract.
A drop of vanilla extract is mandatory for cakes, cookies, or any sweet baked goods. So, why is it essential? Well, you may as well ask why salt is essential in all those spicy and savory dishes. Yep, vanilla extract enhances the flavors and leaves us mesmerized with its fragrance.
The next obvious question would be, what is vanilla extract, and where does vanilla extract come from? But before going into that, let’s dive deeper into the basics, shall we?
What is vanilla?
Did you know vanilla is a spice? Or that it’s derived from orchids? Mind-blowing, right? It’s true. Vanilla belongs to Orchidaceae, commonly known as the orchid family, and is native to South and Central America and the Caribbean.
It grows as a clinging vine, which can go up to 300 feet in height, and has a flower that may be pale green, yellow, or white. The vanilla flower takes three years to bloom and opens for only about twenty-four hours. So, if not pollinated during that time, it wilts and falls to the ground. Interesting, isn’t it?
Now, the vanilla fruit is in the form of a six to ten-inch long pod, similar to a long capsule, and takes about nine months to mature. These fresh vanilla fruits are also known as vanilla beans. And also, one flower gives only one fruit.
These vanilla orchids are mainly grown in Madagascar and cultivated in Mexico, Uganda, China, and Indonesia, among other countries.
Also, cheers to the melipona bee for pollinating the vanilla orchids and helping them to exist because they’re the only bees capable of doing so. Wicked, yeah?
History of Vanilla
The story of vanilla starts way back in the fifteenth century. In the mountain regions of Mexico lived a tribe known as Totonacs, the first civilization to grow and cultivate Vanilla pods.
And guess what they used it for? Nope, not for cooking. The Totonacs used Vanilla for medicinal and religious purposes. They believe vanilla to be a gift from god. In Totonac lore, vanilla orchids are said to be sprouted from the blood of their runaway diety and her forbidden mortal lover, who was captured and executed by her father.
Later, the Aztecs conquered Totonacs and forced them to give the vanilla beans as a form of tax. They found out they were edible and discovered that they had aphrodisiac properties.
So, they combined vanilla with cacao in one of their ceremonial drinks, called “xocolatl” or chocolatl, which was the original hot chocolate. They also named the vanilla orchid a black flower since they turned black after maturing and harvesting.
It is believed that the Aztec emperor Montezuma offered vanilla-infused xocolatl to the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés. And for a long time, Aztecs had vanilla in their hands. But only until Spanish explorers came.
Cortés brought the Mexican hot chocolate recipe to Europe, from where the idea of using vanilla in many different items came. Surprisingly, an apothecary’s idea was to use the black flower in perfumes, tobacco, and alcohol.
Later, in the United States, vanilla was added to ice cream, thanks to Thomas Jefferson. And then, predictably, the demand for this wonderful flavor spread across the world, securing a place in cookbooks and recipes.
Presently, we have five variations of vanilla, with slight differences. The Tahitian beans have a floral tone, and Indonesian vanilla has a smoky, woody flavor. Then there is French Vanilla, named after the French style of ice cream and bourbon vanilla, coming from Réunion and Madagascar. And, of course, the Mexican vanilla.
The Mexican vanilla depends on native bees to pollinate. So, in the 1700s, when the black flowers were snuggled to Réunion, they failed to grow. But then, a twelve-year-old boy, Edmund Albius, discovered that hand pollination could end up in excellent results. This twelve-year-old enslaved boy revolutionized the industry.
Where does vanilla extract come from?
To be straightforward, vanilla extract comes from vanilla beans…but the question is how? Let’s see, step by step.
Growing and harvesting
The first step is, of course, growing the vanilla and harvesting it. But when?
When the vanilla pods are pollinated and still have a yellow-green tip, they’re harvested. These pods, unlike the vanilla flowers, do not have any fragrance. The aroma of vanilla that we know arises from enzymatic action during the curing process.
The vanilla pods are then split open, and the beans are collected. They undergo curing by dipping them in hot water, drying them in the sun, or allowing them to sweat and mature in low heat for several weeks.
This sweating process is a form of fermentation. The next is a conditioning, where the dried beans are wrapped in wax paper and sealed in a box.
Now, these pods are soaked in a solution of alcohol and water to extract the flavors, thus creating the vanilla extract! The chemical compound behind the flavor, vanillin, gets pulled from the soaking vanilla beans to the alcohol during this process.
Why is vanilla so expensive?
Ever bought a tiny bottle of vanilla extract? If yes, you would’ve thought, ‘Woah, why’s this costly?’ That is because vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world after saffron.
Why is that? The answer is spread throughout this article, but let’s organize it.
- In the orchid family, which has about 25,000 varieties, only one of them: vanilla planifolia, grows edible vanilla beans.
- The vanilla flower only opens for about a day, cutting out the normal vast chances of pollination.
- If not pollinated in the 24 hours, they wilt and drop down.
- Only certain bees are capable of pollinating vanilla, and to tackle that, hand pollination is adopted, which is difficult.
- The process of extracting vanilla from the plant is also long and difficult. The curing, drying, and other steps take about a year!
- And this makes them the most labor-intensive crop, thus making it expensive.
Now that we know vanilla is expensive, how is it used in almost everything? The answer is simple. Only pure vanilla extract is costly.
Artificial vanilla extract
To keep up with the demand, we did what we always do; imitate what nature gave us. Yes, the researchers developed a cheaper version of vanillin, the compound that gives vanilla its flavor.
Vanilla is a complex spice. It contains about 300 different flavor and fragrance components. But vanillin is the dominant one.
Vanillin, or chemically speaking, 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, was synthesized artificially in laboratories, making it easier to tackle the expensive pure vanilla. Synthetic vanillin is twenty times cheaper than pure vanillin.
Remember, this doesn’t come from the actual plant but just a replica of the natural vanillin.
This imitation vanilla, artificial vanilla or vanilla essence, is used in perfumes, candles, and flavors for cookies and cakes. Most of the imitation is obtained from petroleum, created as a byproduct of processing rice bran oil or by extracting vanillin from items like cloves, wood pulp, and castoreum.
A little freaked out to see castoreum on the list? Well, gear up then, Because there’s no better way to say this. Castoreum is a food additive that comes from beaver butts.
We’ll allow you a minute to wrap your head around this information.
Castoreum is a chemical compound from beaver’s castor sacs, which are located close to their anal glands. Don’t puke yet, and it’s not as disgusting as you think. Because this chemical is fragrant, thanks to beavers’ special diet of leaves and tree bark, that gives castoreum a musky vanilla scent, making it a suitable replacement for the real extract of vanilla beans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists castoreum as a “generally regarded as safe” additive and thus is used in perfumes and foods. Also, it’s labeled as imitation vanilla or artificial vanilla extract….so be alert.
Vanilla from yeast
Synthetic vanillin and beavers are not the only sources of artificial vanilla flavor. Vanilla can also be produced from fungi like yeast. The yeast can be genetically engineered to transform sugar into vanilla flavor. And this is great for manufacturers because since a microorganism makes it, the vanilla produced in this way can come under the category of natural flavoring.
But these types of vanilla won’t be available in bottles as a vanilla extract but will be used to flavor food and icecreams.
Difference between imitation vanilla and pure vanilla extract
The major difference between artificial vanilla flavor and pure vanilla extract is, of course, the way they are made.
The pure vanilla extracts are extracted from the vanilla pods, which come from the vanilla orchid. The vanilla essence or artificial vanilla flavoring doesn’t even see a natural plant. Even though extracting vanilla from vanilla bean pods is a long, hardcore, and labor-intensive process, pure vanilla is preferred over vanilla essence.
While vanilla flavoring uses synthetic vanillin to get the vanilla flavor, the flavor has to be extracted from the natural vanilla beans using alcohol.
These extracts vary in price, too. Though pure vanilla extract is the one that comes from vanilla bean pods and not the vanilla flavoring, people tend to buy vanilla essence solely because it’s cheaper.
Is imitation vanilla an excellent substitute for pure vanilla extract?
Though using vanilla essence or artificial vanilla flavor instead of vanilla extract will not affect your product, it might result in noticeable differences in the flavor.
We are not perfect enough to replicate nature’s gifts like exactly they are. Something would be lost.
In this case, as we already said, vanilla is a spice with about 300 compounds that contributes to both its aroma and flavor. And we have only synthesized vanillin. Though vanillin is the main component, it’s not the only one. So, artificial vanilla flavors made from this synthetic vanillin are bound to differ from their pure form.
And these differences are far more noticeable in uncooked dishes or dishes cooked over low heat. So, if you’re looking forward to making desserts like puddings and pastries, you might use vanilla extract instead of vanilla essence.
If you’re going for baked goods like cookies, you can surely use vanilla essence if you can’t get hold of vanilla extract.
Now that we’ve discussed all vanilla extract and its imitations let’s see what can be used as substitutes for vanilla extract and vanilla essence.
- Vanilla beans – Since vanilla extract comes from vanilla beans, these are the best alternatives. Instead of one tablespoon of vanilla extract, use seeds from one whole bean pod.
- Maple syrup – Many people use maple syrup as a replacement for vanilla extract. One tablespoon of maple syrup replaces one tablespoon of vanilla extract excellently.
- Honey – Honey is another alternative that can be used in a 1:1 ratio for vanilla extract. Even though it’s milder than vanilla, honey will bring flavor to your dish and decrease the amount of sugar you have to add.
- Liquor – Vanilla extract is about 35 percent of alcohol. So it’s not a surprise to use liquor as a replacement. Though they won’t come even near the original vanilla, flavorful liquors like bourbon, rum, and brandy can be used as a last resort.
There you go! Now you know all about vanilla and its extract. You also know where it comes from and what to use if you can’t find one.
Well, looks like vanilla is not so plain anymore, right?