You don’t need to know your way around the kitchen like Duff Goldman or Buddy Valastro — those pretty famous baking guys — to know that there is nothing that vanilla can’t do. After all, what favorite food (or drink) can’t be made even more palatable with just a hint of vanilla? Cookies, cakes, rums and vodkas, fruits, breads, pancakes, coffee, smoothies… the list is endless. Which is why vanilla has earned its place as one of the most popular food flavorings on the planet. But, there’s more to this fabulous food flavoring than just flavor. Vanilla has a distinct, sweet aroma that has found its way into not just foods, but also into perfumes and aromatherapeutic products. Why? Its antioxidant and anti- inflammatory properties are known to help address medical conditions such as depression and high blood pressure, among others.
So, you get it, right? Vanilla is just plain amazing. (A digression here but one worth taking. Merriam- Webster defines the phrase “plain vanilla” as “lacking any special features or qualities.” Obviously, neither Merriam nor Webster have ever enjoyed a Banana/Vanilla soft serve ice cream cone or a Vanilla Cream cocktail. Oh, well, they don’t know what they’re missing!)
Where were we? Right. Vanilla is available in a variety of forms; from beans to pods, paste to powder, and extract to essence. The two forms we’re going to talk about here, today, are extract and essence.
Vanilla extract, as you probably know well, is a very popular recipe ingredient and widely available. Peruse the baking products aisle of any grocery and you’re sure to see several brands. Not so with vanilla essence. Although it may not sound like it, there is quite a difference between vanilla extract and vanilla essence. Vanilla extract is a natural product, vanilla essence is not. Let me explain… or at least try to.
Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla pods in a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water. What are “pods,” you ask. Okay, backing up a bit, when we say pods we’re referring to the seed pods of the orchids that belong to the genus ‘Vanilla’. Now, when those pods, and their seeds, are soaked in this mixture of alcohol and water, the liquid literally “extracts” the flavor from the seeds. The result? Vanilla extract. A fun fact: Real vanilla is the only flavor regulated by US law, which mandates that a gallon of real vanilla extract must have 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans in a solution of 35% alcohol.
Now, how is extract different from essence? Vanilla essence is usually a synthetic vanilla flavoring and is not as strong as extract and, subsequently not as expensive. Naturally, derived vanilla essences require additives such as coloring, sweeteners and preservatives to make them look, smell and be used like real vanilla. As a result – and just as one would expect – vanilla essence products are usually thinner in viscosity, lighter in color, and are characterized by a flavor that is “weaker” than extract. We say weaker because, you see, much of vanilla’s amazingly intense flavor and fragrance come from the vanillin molecules found in vanilla beans.
So, in order to truly understand the real difference between extract and essence, it helps to have gotten at least a C+ in that high school chemistry class that you now barely remember. Here’s the deal. Vanillin is composed of nearly 300 organic compounds, giving vanilla extract it’s uniquely complex, rich, and robust flavor. Essence, on the other hand, does not boast this complexity as it is often made with extract as “an” ingredient as opposed to “the” ingredient. Pick up a Vanilla Essence product, read the label, and you may very well see this: “Ingredients: Alcohol, Sugar, Vanilla Extract, Water”.
Now that you understand the chemistry behind vanilla, let’s go back to the beginning, to Duff Goldman and Buddy Valastro. Considered twice as strong as essence and preferably more “complex,” when it comes to bringing a touch of vanilla flavor to a recipe, extract seems to be the way to go. Our advice? When in the kitchen, it pays to keep a bottle of Vanilla Extract handy at all times!