Originally, everyone used vanilla beans. Meanwhile, vanilla extracts have been available for more than a hundred years. The first vanilla bean extracts were made at apothecary shops and were more like a tincture or syrup. They were strong and very sweet and were often used to calm upset stomachs. Now vanilla extracts are available just about everywhere. In convenience stores, supermarkets, fancy gourmet shops, and on line. Vanilla extracts are that great smelling liquid in the little brown bottle. By itself it doesn't taste nearly as good as it smells. You put it into cookies, cakes, and ice cream for more flavor. And almost everyone knows about and likes vanilla ice cream!
Pure Vanilla Extracts
Vanilla extracts are made by percolating or macerating chopped vanilla beans with ethyl alcohol and water. Most companies use a consistent blend of vanilla beans, sometimes from several regions, to create their own vanilla flavor signature. The extraction process takes about 48 hours after which the vanilla extracts will mellow in the tanks with the beans from days to weeks, depending on the processor, before being filtered into a holding tank where the amber-colored liquid extracts remains until being bottled.
There are no regulations on the quality of the vanilla beans, so beans can range from premium-quality to the driest cuts and splits containing only small amounts of natural vanillin. Although 35% is the standard alcohol requirement, premium vanilla extracts often contain a higher percentage of alcohol in order to extract more vanilla flavor from the beans. More alcohol is OK, extracts with less than 35% alcohol are not acceptable.
The extracts may also contain sugar, corn syrup, caramel, colors, or stabilizers. But all additives must be on the label. As vanilla is naturally sweet, it isn't necessary to use additional sweeteners, though some companies use 25% or more sugar in their vanilla extracts and some use only a small percentage of sugar as a stabilizer. Adding 20% or more sugar to newly made extracts is like fortifying any alcoholic product. It takes the edge off the harshness of the unaged product, which is, at least partially, why some companies continue to use a significant amount sugar in their flavorings.
Vanilla extracts made with premium vanilla beans and little to no sugar offer a fresh clean flavor to cuisine. These extracts are, of course, expensive, but their flavor is much better and it carries well to the finished product. Vanilla extracts age well, just like good Whiskey and Wine. Therefore, some manufacturers hold the extracts for up to a year to make certain the extracts are well aged before they sell it. Vanilla extracts continue to develop body and depth for about two years, at which time they stabilize. They will keep indefinitely as long as they're stored in a cool dark place. Refrigeration is not recommended.
Although vanilla extracts are high in alcohol content, it has nothing to do with Bourbon whiskey. However, comparing the quality of vanilla extracts is a lot like comparing whiskeys. There's a significant difference between low-end and high-end products. Premium vanilla extracts are certainly more expensive, but the vanilla flavor will be significantly better because they've been made from the finest ingredients, contain few, if any, additives, and are naturally aged.
Single Fold, Double Fold, etc. Extracts
Single fold (written 1x) is the standard concentrate of pure vanilla extracts. Double fold (2x) is twice as strong, meaning that twice as much vanilla beans were used in generating the extracts. Concentrations can go up to 20-fold, but the extracts are not really stable above four-fold. In candy-making, where liquids can change the chemistry of the finished product, multi-fold concentrated extracts are useful. Here we should mention vanilla absolute. This is the most concentrated form of vanilla. It is used in perfumes and other aroma-based products. Because it's so expensive, most candles, soaps, and other scented specialty merchandise, are made from synthetic vanillin. Vanilla absolute is used in very high-end products in small quantities, e.g. mixed with other fragrances in perfumes.
Natural Vanilla Flavor
People who prefer to use non alcohol-based vanilla extracts can use natural vanilla flavor found in natural and specialty food stores and some supermarkets. It is usually made with a glycerin or a propylene glycol base. The texture of natural vanilla, especially in a glycerin base, is viscous and a little darker than vanilla extracts. It also smells somewhat different. In uncooked foods and beverages it tastes fairly similar but with a slight aftertaste; in cooked or baked foods, it's more similar to the alcohol based vanilla extracts.
Making your own Vanilla Extract!?
Making your own vanilla extract is really not that difficult. You only need alcohol, Vodka will do, and some vanilla beans. Plus, you need time to let the alcohol extract the vanilla from the beans.
Visit our make your own vanilla extract project page!