I don’t know about you, but I love a good vanilla ice cream! One with the flecky bits in it! That’s right, the flecky bits from real vanilla pods. I also love a nice sticky vanilla rice pudding, a dollop of silky light vanilla cream, and a thick vanilla custard… although all together that might be a bit rich. 😉 However…
Up until recently, I had never given the vanilla itself very much thought. I’d seen dried-up, wrinkly, skinny black pods sold for what seemed like exorbitant prices at specialty food shops, and wrinkled my nose at the harsh flavour and bitter aftertaste of imitation vanilla in cheap muffins, but I still really had no idea what I was using when I bought “Real Vanilla Essence” in the supermarket.
What’s the difference between all these vanillas? I had seen “Vanilla Extract” plenty of times in the supermarket next to the other two vanilla products, but I noticed that the so-called “extract” contained colourings and even other additives! I thought that seemed even less natural than the “Real Vanilla Essence” that I bought.
So I decided to find out. Firstly, I did a bit of research to find out what questions other people were most commonly asking about vanilla. What I found was that a lot of people are quite confused. Like I was. People were searching for topics such as, “vanilla essence vs vanilla extract”, “imitation vanilla vs real vanilla”, “vanilla bean vs vanilla extract”, and “vanilla vs french vanilla”. And a lot of websites were giving ambiguous answers. So I delved deep and this is what I’ve found.
But first!! A quick explanation of vanillin…
Vanillin (the active ingredient that lends the flavour and aroma of vanilla)
Vanillin is the main active ingredient in both real and imitation vanillas of all kinds. Cured vanilla pods (from Vanilla planifola, a vining orchid native to Mexico) contain approximately 2% by dry weight vanillin, and on high quality vanilla pods, the vanillin can actually be seen as a white powder or “frost” on the pod. Natural vanillin is also found in maple syrup, coffee, wine, olive oil and lychees – it’s a naturally occuring compound. However, real vanillin comes from the vanilla bean or vanilla pod, which means it can be considered a natural food, whereas synthetic vanillin (which is the active ingredient in imitation vanilla products) comes from either a byproduct of the wood pulp industry, or even more deliciously, a byproduct of coal tar! Unfortunately, imitation vanillin misses the point. There are 171 identified aromatic components in real vanilla beans. Vanillin is only one of them. That’s why, if you want the real vanilla deal, you need to use real vanilla. Let’s look at the different kinds of vanilla flavourings you can get, and then we’ll compare them side by side at the bottom of this article.
Now let’s cover the main variants of vanilla that you can buy.
Vanilla essence (real vanilla)
Real vanilla essence is made using real vanilla beans/pods, however, it usually has other things added. The brand I can buy at the supermarket is called “Queen Certified Organic Vanilla Essence”, and it contains “extract of organic vanilla beans (water, organic alcohol content 35% and organic sugar“. It is thin, medium-brown and smells alcoholic. The alcohol evaporates in cooking. It is made from real vanilla pods, naturally-derived alcohol and real sugar, therefore it is a real (natural) food. You can add vanilla essence to any dish or recipe which calls for vanilla, although it’s best added near the end, so that the lovely aromas don’t evaporate off with the alcohol – heat will cause it to evaporate and the taste of vanilla that’s left will not be as strong.
Vanilla extract (real vanilla)
Real vanilla extract can refer to several things.
- Supermarket vanilla essence is often a mix of vanilla pop extract and caramel. The extract in “vanilla extract” may be a little stronger than the extract in “vanilla essence”, but often, much of the luxuriousness is just caramel syrup. Which is, as you may already be aware, simply burnt sugar. So don’t pay premium for a vanilla product that’s full of caramel – it’s not worth the extra money!
- Gourmet or specialty-shop vanilla extract is usually a thin, dark brown, richly-scented liquid made with real vanilla beans, alcohol and sugar, just like supermarket vanilla essence. However, you can expect a better quality and depth of flavour from a gourmet vanilla extract.
This form of vanilla is generally for use in baking, drinks and puddings. So, you’re wondering… vanilla essence vs vanilla extract – given the choice of both, in a pure natural form, which should you buy? I’d go with “vanilla extract” – the two, in pure form, are essentially the same, but the “extract” *may* get you a stronger natural flavour!
Imitation vanilla essence <— red for potentially dangerous!
Here’s where things get murky. Imitation vanilla essence may contain any of the following:
- Caramel – adds cheap bulk
- Ethyl-vanillin – a compound derived from coal tar
- Lignin-vanillin – a compound derived from wood pulp waste
- Propenyl guaethol – an artificially-derived chemical that tastes a bit like vanilla
- Propylene glycol – an industrially-produced mineral-oil-derived chemical used in everything from antifreeze products to icecream – it tastes faintly sweet and it’s also toxic!
- Coumarin – comes from the Tonka bean, tastes and smells convincingly like vanilla, but is highly toxic and can cause liver damage – it’s also a known carcinogen! Beware of cheap “vanilla” essences from the Caribbean Islands, Central America and Mexico, in some of which coumarin is legal. The USA’s FDA has banned it as a food ingredient because of its dangers and you really don’t want to be consuming this stuff.
- Real vanilla essence – a tiny amount! That’s so that the bottle can say “containing REAL vanilla!” – but don’t be fooled. Real vanilla essence is real ALL the way through – it doesn’t just contain a cursory trace amount!
Did you want to know about imitation vanilla vs real vanilla? Real vanilla will always taste stronger and more complex, because it has many more delicate constituents than imitation vanilla. Real vanilla gives the full spectrum of vanilla flavour. Imitation vanilla gives you one or two isolated chemicals. Plus imitation vanilla has a nasty metallic aftertaste. Imitation vanilla vs real vanilla? Give me the real vanilla any day!
Vanilla paste, if an all-natural brand, should contain nothing more than the inside of vanilla beans, alcohol, water, maybe a little sugar, and possibly a gum such as gum tragacanth. No other flavourings should be added, although a little vanilla powder (pure) may be added. Vanilla paste is good in recipes that call for a vanilla bean, but you don’t have one handy. Vanilla paste gives the look and taste of real vanilla without the trouble of actually scraping a vanilla bean. It also keeps for longer than real vanilla beans do.
This could mean anything, but it most likely means the FAKE stuff. The reason you can be assured of fake stuff in “vanilla flavouring” is that real vanilla would be loudly advertising its realness on the bottle or packet. See “Imitation vanilla essence”, above, for ingredients that vanilla flavouring may contain.
This refers to cured vanilla beans/pods that come from the plant Vanilla planifola, a vining orchid native to Mexico. Vanilla planifola beans/pods contain approximately 2% by dry weight vanillin. Many dishes call for the seeds to be scraped out of the inside of the bean and into the dish. The whole pod is steeped in alcohol to make vanilla extract or vanilla essence, can be ground up to make vanilla powder, and can be left in a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar. And obviously, with vanilla beans and a bit of time, you can create your very own pure vanilla essence or vanilla extract. So for those who have wondered about vanilla bean vs vanilla extract, wonder no longer. The extract is made from the bean!
*Where to buy vanilla bean paste – the genuine sort? One of my friends has a business selling high-quality, natural vanilla bean paste – check it out at their online store, Vanilla Online. 🙂
Vanilla powder is made by grinding whole vanilla beans until fine and powdery. It can be added to dishes in the same way as vanilla essence, to provide the vanilla flavour, but it won’t evaporate with heating in the way that vanilla essence will. It can be handy for baking where you don’t want any liquid (from the alcohol/water contents of essence and extract) in the mixture.
To make vanilla sugar, take either a whole bean and cut in half, or take a bean after the seeds have been scraped out for use in another dish, and place what’s left of that bean in a jar. Cover well with either fine icing sugar or crystallised sugar and let the jar sit, covered, for a couple of weeks. You will get a vanilla-flavoured sugar which can be used over desserts or in baking. Ratio: approxiamtely one bean to two cups of sugar – experiment to find the vanilla strength that you desire.
Many people ask about vanilla vs French vanilla. The truth is, it’s like comparing lemons with lemon butter. The comparison of vanilla vs French vanilla doesn’t really balance. The term “French vanilla” comes from the French tradition of making ice-cream with vanilla pods, egg yolks and cream. If you find “French vanilla” in a bottle, it is probably a sugary flavouring syrup including custard, caramel or butterscoth flavours as well as some vanilla. It will mostly likely be an artificial flavouring. Don’t bother with it – chances are whatever you were planning to add vanilla too will contain the other constituents of “French vanilla” flavour anyway – naturally!
Oh yum. I think I am going to have to go an make myself a hot chocolate-and-vanilla milk after all that! I have made myself hungry (once again – damn you, hunger-inducing blog)…