Vanilla Extracts – Are they all the same?

vanilla

Image courtesy of Kim at flickr.com

When I was gathering baking ingredients in the kitchen, my husband remarked on the vanilla extract. He noted the fancy bottle I had and told me that once, when he was young, his mother sent him to the store to get vanilla extract. He bought the largest bottle he could with the money he was given, and that suited his mother. I wanted to gag, but didn’t want to be seen as a vanilla snob. Well, maybe I am. You will find no cheap imitation varieties on my shelves. But, in the name of baking science, I thought I should explore vanilla extract further.

To start, there are many varieties of vanilla beans that are steeped in alcohol to yield the distinct vanilla extract flavor. Frontier, sold in many grocery stores, carries four varieties of the extract, each with subtle differences. There is Tahitian Vanilla with a “fruitier and more floral aroma.” There is also Indonesian Vanilla from “Indonesian vanilla beans (that) are processed in such a way that their intense flavor holds up to cooking well.” Then they offer Papua New Guinea Vanilla which “is extremely sweet, floral and delicately nuanced.” Another type is a versatile Uganda Vanilla that is sweet, rounded and full.” Okay, I did say the differences were subtle. To choose a variety may be a matter of taste and use.

The difference between Imitation vanilla and Pure vanilla is less subtle. Upon smelling Imitation vanilla I can immediately confirm I don’t want something tasting like that in my baked goods. Am I alone in this concept? Apparently not. The kitchn took to the task of asking baking experts if it was worth it to pay the price for pure vanilla. The conclusion was that you “get what you pay for — pure vanilla has much more depth of flavor.” One expert summed it up by responding to the question of when they insist on using pure vanilla extract: “Always! I’d rather use nothing, as the taste of artificial vanilla varies from insipid to nasty. Pure vanilla not only has a delicious taste of its own; it also enhances other flavors.”

I do suppose I am not a complete vanilla extract snob; I do not insist on making my own. (It might be laziness). If you decide to venture into the realm of making your own, check out Frontier Co-op’s recipe here. And please let me know how you did. I bow to your extra efforts taken in the name of baking your best.

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