How to – Choosing a Vanilla Extract

Vanilla is a wonderful ingredient that is used in a lot of recipes.  It would actually be hard to find a sweet recipe that didn’t contain vanilla as one of the ingredients.  Vanilla is the most common flavor used in popular foods including ice cream, yogurt, pudding, frosting, shakes, etc.  It is a prized flavor that is subtle, yet stands out.

Vanilla is derived from orchid plants, mainly the pod of the orchid.  Orchids that produce vanilla pods are grown, year round, around the world.  Most notably, though, Madagascar is known for having the most vanilla producing orchids and thus seems to dominate the spice market with its vanilla beans.

Vanilla is harvested from the orchid plant and is produced into three different available vanilla forms; the whole pod, powder and extract.  The most popular form of vanilla is liquid vanilla extract.  Vanilla extract is generally offered in two different forms, pure vanilla extract and vanilla extract flavoring.   Pure vanilla extract contains the highest quantity, per volume, of vanilla extract.  Vanilla extract flavoring is usually an intimation of vanilla extract and most of the time it doesn’t even contain vanilla.

When I first started baking I was unaware of the differences between vanilla extracts.  I would just purchase the cheapest vanilla extract or the one that was on sale, I honestly thought they were all the same.  After I started to become more aware of the ingredients I was using in my recipes, I began looking at the contents of each vanilla extract.

As far as liquid extracts go, pure vanilla extract is by far the best one to choose.  Pure vanilla extract generally includes a base of alcohol, water and the extract of vanilla beans.   The next best liquid extract would be the standard vanilla extract.  Standard vanilla extract typically includes the same ingredients as pure vanilla extract.  However, standard vanilla extract usually contains less alcohol along with sugar and in some cases corn syrup.

The worst liquid vanilla extract would be the imitation vanilla flavoring.  Imitation vanilla flavoring generally contains water, glucose syrup, propylene glycol, alcohol (small amount) and artificial flavors.  Propylene glycol is a chemical solvent that is used to help preserve the liquid and keeps the ingredients liquid state.  Unfortunately propylene glycol has been linked to cancer, developmental/reproductive issues, allergies, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, and organ system toxicity.  Yummy stuff right?

When I bake, I traditionally (up until recently) use pure liquid vanilla extract.  I found the flavor of the pure liquid vanilla extract to be the best and the ingredients to fit most in line with my dietary wants/needs.   The only problem I had with pure vanilla extract was the amount of alcohol in the extract.  Sure there are no alcohol extracts on the market, but these vanilla extracts contain glycerin and xanthan gum.  Glycerin gives the vanilla extract a weird, almost slimy, quality and xanthan gum has been known to bother individuals with sensitive guts (myself included).  Furthermore, alcohol free extracts never really have the same flavor punch that alcohol based extracts have.

In regards to the alcohol in flavoring extract, it is a common belief that the alcohol cooks off when you bake it.  However, after I researched that topic, I quickly found that really only a small percentage of the alcohol burns off and that majority of the alcohol actually stays in the baked good.  I also create a lot of dishes that include vanilla extract and are no bake recipes (like yogurt, ice cream, granola, etc), so the alcohol never even has a chance to possibly burn off.

My curiosity about finding a different form of vanilla extract led me to vanilla beans.  Vanilla beans are available in most grocery stores in their whole format.  There are two problems with whole vanilla beans.  One is that whole vanilla beans are extremely expensive.  Typically whole vanilla beans are priced anywhere from $8 up to $20 per bottle.  Most bottles only contain 2 vanilla beans which doesn’t go very far in recipes.  The second problem with whole vanilla beans is that they are soaked in alcohol.  So purchasing and using the whole vanilla bean doesn’t get away from using vanilla that is alcohol free.

I was feeling somewhat let down about my ability to find a vanilla that was just pure vanilla.  That was until recently when I was at a local food market that sells organic, locally derived/sourced foods and products.  I was browsing their spice area and my eye caught a test tube shaped bottle filled with a dark powder.  I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know what spice could be so dark and mysteriously packaged this way.  I picked up the tube and read the label.  The label stated the spice was “Pure Vanilla Powder”.  I quickly rolled the tube over to see what was in the ingredient list.  I read “100% Pure Ground Vanilla Beans”.   What?!  Really?!  Could this be my new vanilla?  Could this be what I was hoping and dreaming about?  I immediately purchased the vanilla powder and hurried home to try it out in some of my favorite recipes.

Much to my delight, the powdered version of vanilla is an amazingly wonderful product.  Just like the package stated, it is 100% pure ground vanilla, nothing else.  The flavor is intense and perfectly vanilla.  The only aftertaste is vanilla, no alcohol bitterness, or weird polymer mouth feel.  The powder was the perfect accent to my zucchini pudding, tofu ice cream and even my afternoon coffee.  I was so excited about my new find and knowing I would quickly breeze through the 1 ounce container, I promptly hopped online to see if I could purchase the vanilla powder in larger quantities.

Thankfully I found a couple vendors online that sell pure vanilla in the powder form.  Watch out, though, some vendors sell what is listed as vanilla powder but they contain added ingredients.  Some powdered vanillas contain sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin or sucrose.  I was able to locate, online, the vendor that sells the powdered vanilla I purchased in the local food market.  They are Mannix Family Vanilla and are located in Florida but ship domestically to the states.  I was also able to locate another online vendor, Sun Food Super Foods, which sells 100% powdered vanilla.  Sun Food Super Foods is a great online vendor that sells raw supplements, foods and other amazing goods.  I have purchased through them several times and their products are great.  Sun Foods Super Foods ships internationally so they are a good vendor for all my International followers.

Pure vanilla powder is much stronger than traditional liquid vanilla extract.  Generally the powder substitute amount is half the amount of the pure liquid vanilla extract.  For example, if the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of liquid vanilla extract, use 1/2 teaspoon of the powdered vanilla.  The powder cooks up the same in baked goods, so nothing else needs to change in the cooking part of the recipe.

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5 thoughts on “How to – Choosing a Vanilla Extract

  1. Lili

    Thank you for such a useful post on vanilla extracts, etc. I think my favourite kind is scraping the seeds from the vanilla pods, especially to infuse milks and custards. But I’m going to link to your post in my ingredients section, to help people not buy the dreaded vanilla ‘flavourings’!! 🙂 Thanks again! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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