That small bottle of vanilla on your pantry shelf is anything but plain.
Vanilla is a basic flavor that we take for granted. But really good vanilla is a fabulous flavor on its own. Also, vanilla adds a complex dimension to many recipes. It brings out the flavor and makes food more delicious. For example, if you bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies and leave out the vanilla, they will still be good. However, you will notice they do not have the complex flavor that makes them really spectacular.
Recently, I spoke to a large group, and a single question about vanilla seeded many more. I think you may be interested in our vanilla discussion:
Q. What is the difference between real vanilla and imitation vanilla?
A. Real vanilla extract is made by a process of soaking and filtering vanilla beans in a solution of alcohol and water. In order for vanilla extract to be labeled pure vanilla, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that the solution contain a minimum of 35 percent of alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean per gallon.
Imitation vanilla extract is a by-product of wood. It is usually made by soaking wood in alcohol that contains vanillin, which is chemically treated to taste like vanilla.
Q. On a whim, I purchased a jar of vanilla bean paste. Now I am wondering how to use it. Any suggestions?
A. Vanilla bean paste is a fabulous form of vanilla, and I use it frequently in place of more expensive vanilla beans. It is less expensive than vanilla beans, a step-saver and is handy to use when you want the distinctive look of vanilla seeds in your dishes. I use it in baking, custard-type desserts and even in a sauce for fruit salad. To replace vanilla extract with vanilla bean paste, just use equal amounts of vanilla bean paste. Or use one tablespoon of vanilla bean paste for every whole vanilla bean.
Q. Is Mexican vanilla real vanilla? It does have a slightly different flavor.
A. Yes, Mexican vanilla is real vanilla. Just as there are many varieties of apples with different characteristics, there are different varieties of vanilla.
The most common varieties of vanilla are Mexican, Madagascar-Bourbon and Tahitian.
The Mexican vanilla bean has a smooth, strong, rich fragrance and flavor. Be sure to purchase from a reputable supplier. It has been reported that some manufacturers of vanilla products in Mexico add coumarin, a product banned by the FDA because it can cause liver and kidney damage.
The majority of vanilla comes from the islands of Madagascar and Reunion. The Madagascar-Bourbon vanilla beans often are referred to as “bourbon beans” because they are named for the period when the island of Reunion was ruled by the Bourbon kings of France. Bourbon vanilla does not contain bourbon whiskey.
Tahitian vanilla beans are not quite as flavorful as the other two but are very aromatic with complex floral notes.