WHAT IS VANILLA EXTRACT?
Vanilla in a liquid form would either be pure vanilla extract or imitation extract, commonly known as vanilla essence. If you understand the complexities of pure vanilla aroma and taste, you’ll baulk at the idea of using anything other than the purist form of extract. However, both are found in stores, so let’s cover the difference between the two.
How vanilla extract is made
First, let’s cover how vanilla extract is made and then we’ll talk about the difference between pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla essence.
To extract the delicate flavour of whole vanilla beans, the pods are soaked in a solution of alcohol and water. The vanilla beans are left to macerate in the solution for a minimum of 6 to 8 weeks, which allows time for the beans to release their incredible flavour.
Macerating means softening or breaking a food item into pieces using liquid. The alcohol used to make commercial vanilla extract is ethyl alcohol. This is ethanol which is a clear, colourless liquid derived from sugar cane. Ethanol is the principle ingredient in alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine and spirits.
Home bakers and cooks typically use 80 proof vodka to make homemade vanilla extract. Vodka has a neutral taste which tends not to throw off the delicate balance of flavours in sweet goods or savory dishes. Homemade vanilla extract can also be made using white rum, brandy or bourbon.
Why whole vanilla beans are soaked in alcohol
The simple vanilla bean has over 200 organic compounds, which collectively produce the rich, fragrant vanilla flavour that we know and love. Alcohol is the best solution to use to draw the flavour molecules out the vanilla bean.
You can leave out the alcohol and only use water but the vanilla extract you end up with tends to be bland and lacking in the robust flavor punch of alcohol-extracted vanilla.
For homemade vanilla extract, either 70 or 80 proof alcohol is used to extract the aroma and taste. Proof is the percentage of alcohol times two. Therefore, 70 proof vodka contains 35 percent alcohol. Likewise, 80 proof vodka contains 40 percent alcohol.
Types of vanilla extract
Vanilla extract is also categorised by its strength, using the common term of fold. The most common vanilla extract found in stores is single-fold. It meets the minimum FDA criteria of the alcohol-to-whole bean ratio.
Double-fold vanilla extract is harder to find in stores but it’s the vanilla extract that professional bakers and chefs prefer to use. Basically, double-fold is double the amount of vanilla beans soaked in the same ratio of alcohol-to-water as single-fold extract.
Vanilla extract goes all the way up to 20-fold. The higher-fold extract is not suitable for consumption and is used mostly by pharmaceutical and cosmetic manufacturers to mask the taste of medicine and to produce perfumes, soaps and skincare products.
What is pure vanilla extract?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stipulates that pure vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon and contain 35% alcohol (70 proof). The agency also limits other ingredients outside of vanilla beans and alcohol.
This minimum FDA requirement produces single-fold pure vanilla extract. As mentioned, double-fold pure extract contains double the quantity of whole vanilla beans to the same amount of alcohol-water solution.
A vanilla extract that contains anything less than the FDA-required ratio of beans to alcohol and water cannot be labeled pure vanilla extract. More importantly, any vanilla extract that is not made using organic whole vanilla beans can never be called pure vanilla extract.
Pure vanilla extract should only contain the following:
- ethyl alcohol (commercial extract) or 70-80 proof alcohol (homemade extract)
- natural extracts of whole vanilla beans
Sometimes natural sugar in the form of corn syrup, maple syrup or honey is added to pure vanilla extract to sweeten the flavour profile. Pure vanilla extract should be free of all artificial ingredients and preservatives.
If nothing but pure vanilla extract will do, be careful what you buy in the stores. The market is flooded with cheaper, imitation extract brands that fool you into thinking they’re made from natural ingredients. Read the label carefully on the bottle of vanilla extract you buy.
What is vanilla essence?
Vanilla essence is a solution produced using either synthetic vanillin or derivatives of natural organic material such as pine bark or cloves. The artificial flavouring is designed to artificially mimic the aroma and taste of natural vanilla when used in baking and cooking. Some do a better job than others.
The demand for vanilla essence exists because it’s cheaper to manufacturer than pure vanilla extract. After saffron, vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world.
The simple vanilla bean contains more than 200 compounds and vanillin is the primary compound. To produce cheaper vanilla extract, scientists created a synthetic form of vanillin. Artificial vanillin is used as a flavoring agent in foods, beverages and pharmaceuticals.
How is synthetic vanillin made?
In the past, artificial vanillin was made using lignin, which is a byproduct of the wood pulp industry. In some cases, synthetic vanillin is derived from coal tar, clove oil, pine bark, fermented bran and even secretions from a beaver’s castor glands (near its butt).
Today, the vast majority of synthetic vanillin is made from eugenol or guaiacol. In other words, petrochemicals derived from crude oil. Vanilla essence or rather imitation vanilla extract is entirely man-made and contains no organic ingredients.
Synthetic vanillin is clear in color. Manufacturers of vanilla essence use a caramel colour dye to mimic the deep, dark-brown color of pure vanilla extract.
The ingredients found in vanilla essence include all or some of the following:
- propylene glycol
Swapping pure vanilla extract with vanilla essence
Vanilla essence is cheaper than pure vanilla extract, which is why many home bakers and cooks use it. However, vanilla essence tends to lack the robust aroma and taste of the pure variety and this needs to be factored into your recipe. The cheaper versions often have a bitter aftertaste caused by the chemicals in the product.
If a recipe calls for pure vanilla extract but you only have vanilla essence (imitation vanilla extract), you may need to add a more than is specified to get a stronger vanilla flavour. In fact, you double the amount of vanilla essence if you’re substituting it for pure vanilla extract. So, in the long run, you’re not really saving money by buying the cheaper flavouring.
Here’s an easy guide to the most common substitutions for pure vanilla extract:
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract is equal to:
- half a vanilla bean
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
- half teaspoon vanilla powder
- 2 teaspoons vanilla essence (artificial vanilla extract)