Vanilla is a great flavoring. Used in baking it adds a subtle undertone and can help to intensify the flavors. The beans for real vanilla extract are harvested from orchid flowers and many people consider those from Madagascar to be the best. Pure vanilla, however, is very expensive. For a 4 ounce bottle I've seen it priced anywhere between $4-$9. That's quite a bit when you consider that there are only two ingredients in there, alcohol and vanilla beans.
For vanilla extract (not pure), sometimes labeled “Natural Vanilla Extract” you may find yourself looking at more than two ingredients:
- Sugar. I'm not sure why this would be added since vanilla extract by itself is not expected to be sweet, it's used to flavor things to help bring out the sweetness. If the sugar source is not identified as cane sugar it is possibly beet sugar which has the potential to be from genetically modified (GM) sources.
- I've also seen labels that contain corn syrup. This is, again, a sweetener, however since it's from corn it is mostly likely to be GM and therefore not something you want to purchase.
- Potassium sorbate can be added as a preservative. This is most likely done when the alcohol content is low since alcohol by itself would be a preservative. For some people this preservative can cause rashes, itching of the mouth or eyes, congestion, or digestive disturbance.
- Caramel color is another additive. True vanilla does turn brown but perhaps the manufacturers want a consistent looking product and therefore they use caramel coloring. Unfortunately recent studies have shown this additive to be carcinogenic and therefore something you want to avoid.
Artificial vanilla, sometimes referred to as vanillin, has no extract from vanilla beans at all. Instead it is chemically synthesized. One common substance used is lignin, a waste product from paper making, which is treated to release vanilla flavor overtones. Vanillin can also be synthesized from the oils from cloves. The most common source is guaiacol, an oily yellow petrochemical-like substance made by distilling wood tar (wood tar is also referred to as creosote). In some people vanillin can bring on migraine headaches or cause other allergic reactions.
For those who need to eat gluten free many dessert recipes call for gluten free vanilla extract. The interesting thing is that most pure vanilla uses distilled alcohol as the base. The distillation process creates a gluten-free product as the gluten proteins cannot carry over through vaporization, cooling, and re-liquifying that happens.
Having said all that, it's easy, and not that expensive, to make your own pure vanilla extract. Here in photos is my recent kitchen adventure making my own vanilla extract. To make your own you'll need 3-4 beans per cup of alcohol.
Step one: Buy some vanilla beans (whichever kind you prefer) and alcohol (I chose vodka)
Step two: slice open the vanilla beans and scrape out the stuff in the middle. Scrape this stuff into your jar/bottle of alcohol.
Step three: Cut the vanilla beans and add them to the jar with the scrapings. Cap the jar tightly.
Step four: This is the part that requires patience. Wait. In two weeks shake the jar. Wait some more. Repeat. It takes approximately four months for your extract to be ready (some people say six is better)
Musings on making pure vanilla extract:
- Supposedly it does best if you make it in an amber colored bottle. I didn't have one the size I wanted so I just used a recycled glass bottle. But I have a dark, fermentation cupboard so I figure it's good in there.
- The bean does not at all smell like vanilla when you cut it open and scrape out the stuff. I'm not sure what it smells like but, to my untrained nose, certainly not vanilla.
- The longer the extract sat the more it smelt like vanilla.
- Things to watch out for with the alcohol you are using. Vodka is sometimes made from wheat so if you have gluten sensitivity issues you need to use gluten free vodka which is made from grapes (seek out organic in order to avoid pesticide residue from the grapes), potatoes or corn (potentially GM so look for organic if it's sourced from corn). Bourbon is made from corn and therefore potentially GM, you'll need to look for organic bourbon (not easy to find I've been told). Rum is made from sugar cane and should be fine. Brandy is made from fruit pressings, grapes, apples, or pears usually. Since apples and pears are high on the dirty dozen list look for organic to avoid pesticide residue.
- As you use your vanilla extract you can continue to top off the jar and let it sit a while to infuse.
Below is my current batch of vanilla extract, at approximately two months in. It gets darker and darker each time I pull it out. And more vanilla-y smelling. I'm excited to start using it once it's done.