Life can certainly get complicated as new products flood the market and old products get rebranded. There are actually five different types of vanilla in the marketplace right now and we’re not talking five different species here. We’re talking labels and what’s inside the bottles. As I get asked about this frequently, I decided to write an article specifically addressing what’s in the bottle and why it’s labeled the way it is. We’ll start with pure vanilla extract.
Pure Vanilla Extract
There is a Standard of Identity for vanilla extract in the United States. To be labeled vanilla extract, a gallon measure must contain 13.35% vanilla bean extractives (10-ounces of moisture-free solids), 35% alcohol, and the balance in distilled water. What is not listed in the Standard of Identity is sugar, corn syrup, caramel color or any other additives. Some companies include one or more of these ingredients on their labels, but most do not. The same is true with alcohol. Grain alcohol is the most commonly used alcohol but sugarcane alcohol is also used. Sugar or corn syrup are often used to mask the harsh notes of alcohol or to make the extract smell and taste better if the quality of the beans used were not good quality.
Enough customers have asked us this question that I realized that although I’ve mentioned this information in passing in blogs, we needed a blog that addresses this important question. My hope is that this will assist all of you who aren’t quite sure about the best way to preserve your products.
Have you noticed that the cost of cookies, cakes and ice creams have gone up? Most desserts use vanilla, and vanilla prices have skyrocketed since 2014. Could that be it? And why is vanilla getting so expensive? The answer may surprise you. Read on.
Like everything else, the cost of vanilla is affected by supply and demand, and today the vanilla supply is down – WAY DOWN. The reasons will surprise you!
Tropical farmers who grow coffee, cacao, vanilla, sugar and a few other crops, constantly face fluctuating prices for their crops due to supply and demand. And because vanilla is by far the smallest of the tropical luxury crops, the vanilla industry faces dramatic fluctuations.
In late February of 2017, a market report was released by a European company that has been in the vanilla business for more than 100 years and is known for their honest and reliable industry assessments. The report addressed the chaotic conditions on the ground in Madagascar. It also provided a clearer picture of what to expect when the 2017 crop is harvested in May/June and what to anticipate in November when the beans are ready to be sold on the wholesale market.
Did you know there is a dark side to fair trade vanilla?
According to the World Fair Trade Organization, the definition of Fair Trade is as follows:
“Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seek greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade Organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.”
What’s not to like about this? Fairness for farmers, which helps them and their families to thrive as well as to continue to produce the foods, spices and other ingredients that we love and use regularly.
So many choices. So many prices.
Are they all the same? What is the best vanilla?
Have you ever stared at the vanilla extracts on the store shelves and wondered which is the best vanilla extract to buy? In some respects, choosing a vanilla extract is like selecting a fine wine. How do you know which one to buy?
Read on for an insider’s view of vanilla extract, how to choose what’s best for you and why high-quality vanilla makes a world of difference in flavor.
The best quality vanilla extracts come with a price
The simple answer for what is the best vanilla extract often boils down to price. Good vanilla is not cheap. And because it is so pricey (it’s the world’s most labor-intensive crop), customers are often put off by sticker-shock.
Most supermarket vanilla extracts are mediocre
So stores try their best to buy the cheapest extracts they can find. That means most supermarket vanilla extracts — both brand name and store brands — while they may be pure vanilla, are usually of mediocre quality in comparison to the really fine quality extracts that are available elsewhere. This is also true in the big-box stores where bulk vanilla is fairly inexpensive.
Let’s look at the so-called vanilla from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for the answer
A common misconception exists about vanilla from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. People rave to me about the fabulous deal they got on a giant bottle of vanilla extract in Mexico, Haiti, Guadeloupe, etc. It has such a unique flavor and it’s stronger than any vanilla they’ve ever used. And wow, was it inexpensive!
Well, sorry folks, it isn’t pure vanilla extract. In fact, the cheap, dark (or clear) product in the big bottle is not vanilla at all. It is imitation vanilla with unknown ingredients!
Because vanilla originally came from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and because, at one time Mexico produced the world’s finest pure vanilla, it would seem plausible that it would still be true. In fact, more than 99% of all of the so-called vanilla extract bought in retail venues in Latin America is imitation vanilla.
Ah, the delicious allure of romance, the intensity of a new infatuation, the rapture of falling in love. Pretty powerful stuff, the pleasures and passions of romance and love. Spring, summer, fall and winter, we’re in love with the idea of love. The perfume industry thrives on our desire to lure and captivate the object of our affection and vanilla performs an important role in the drama. While the romantic sunset at the seashore and that special song may make us swoon, taste and smell are big players in the game of love.
So, how does vanilla steal the show? Is it an aphrodisiac? Will it enhance our love lives? Let’s explore a few of the myths and facts surrounding the illustrious bean to see if, indeed, there are seeds of amorous evidence inside those sleek black pods.
Beautiful, exotic Mexico. Warm weather, gorgeous beaches, a rich and varied culture, delicious food, and…the birthplace of vanilla. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, duh! I buy my fabulous vanilla there every time I visit.” In which case you should take a moment to read about your fabulous vanilla here. Otherwise, here is a brief overview of the history of the Mexican vanilla industry and why Mexican vanilla beans are difficult to come by today.
A brief encyclopedia of facts you might like to know about vanilla
What is Vanilla?
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, the largest and oldest family of flowering plants in the world. Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the entire orchid family, which includes roughly 25,000 orchid varieties and over 10,000 hybrids. It grows best in the moist, tropical regions of the world 15-1/2 degrees to the north and south of the Equator.
For an update on the 2016 vanilla shortage, please see “Why is Vanilla so Expensive?“
Have you noticed that vanilla prices have been creeping up for the last two years?
Well, now the price of vanilla has gone through the roof!
Frustrating? You bet, especially as we enter the autumn baking season and the holidays.
So why are the prices climbing and where can you find cheap vanilla? It turns out the answer is complicated.
Think shortage – One cyclone can wipe out a third of the year’s vanilla crop overnight!
Nearly everything we purchase is priced according to supply and demand, and this is especially true with food. Whereas clothing, washing machines, cars and other man-made goods typically are pretty consistently available, agricultural products are subject to weather patterns, pests, pathogens and even human manipulation.
Because we live in a global economy, if there’s a wheat shortage due to bad weather in our Midwest, our government can buy wheat from another country. Prices will go up, but bakeries won’t shut down and flour will still be on market shelves. The same is true with last year’s egg shortage. Avian Flu decimated many commercial egg producing facilities but only in some regions. We could still find eggs at the market, but we paid dearly for them. Now, almost a year later, there is a glut of eggs again.
We’ll tell you, plus share with you our favorite vanilla paste recipes!
In 1967 I saw my first vanilla bean. I was already 24 years old. This shouldn’t sound remarkable but it actually is because even finding a vanilla bean in San Francisco in 1967 took some effort.
I had a friend who had lived in Italy and traveled a great deal in Europe. He and I were in a coffee and spice store and he bought me a vanilla bean. I was enchanted by the aroma but completely puzzled about how to use it. He told me to put it in my container of coffee beans and the vanilla would perfume the coffee. So I did. It wasn’t until 1985 that I learned how to use vanilla beans in any other way. Once I knew how, I never stopped using them but I’ve expanded my vanilla repertoire considerably since then.
There’s a reason why I share this story. Before the Food Network became so popular, most people had no clue about how to use vanilla beans. Probably had never seen them either. Once they became a regular on the Network, everyone had to use vanilla beans in their baking and dessert making.
Here are some of the questions that I’m most frequently asked about vanilla. These are the short answers. If you have questions about specific products, be sure to read the descriptions posted with each product. If you are interested in more in-depth information about vanilla, check out the Queen’s book, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the Worlds Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. Any serious cook or baker as well as anyone interested in the history of food, will find this book fascinating. You can get it here.
Q. What is vanilla?
A. Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the orchid family, which is the largest family of
Really. In 1985, when I wrote The Vanilla Cookbook, my editors asked me what vanilla could be used in besides ice cream, dessert and beverages. Quite honestly, the idea had never crossed my mind. However, they threw down the gauntlet next to my half-written manuscript. Experiment or give back the advance — what would you do?
For a flavor that everyone loves (some people love it more than chocolate!), why is vanilla extract sold in little bottles or one or two bean tubes? Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Then again, vanilla beans are so expensive, why would I want to buy them in bulk?
Good questions that we don’t usually consider when we’re buying spices and flavors. Nearly all are sold in small quantities except online and in specialty stores. We’re essentially programmed to think small even though it’s all about big flavor.
While it does make sense to purchase dried herbs in small amounts unless we’re using them daily, when it comes to vanilla beans
Another vanilla crisis? Didn’t we just have one?
Yep, we sure did and the price of a little bottle of vanilla was ridiculously high! So how can this be happening again? Sadly, very easily. Worse, it shouldn’t have to happen!
In the commodity world the operative words are supply and demand. When it comes to anything grown in the tropics, most especially luxury crops like coffee, chocolate, vanilla and sugar, supply and demand are
In the summer of 2007 I met Chris Barden of Worldwide Farmers Exchange (WFE), a program operating out of Berkeley California. We were attending an event at Santa Clara University. Over lunch together, I learned that Chris was interested in finding women farmers to participate in their exchange program. I was interested in WFE as many of the farmers I have met via my site want very much to gain new skills sets to assist them in their countries of origin. I’m sharing information about the Worldwide Farmers Exchange as one possible option for those of you interested in learning new agricultural work that could benefit you and your country as well as to encourage those readers who have farms to
Want a natural vanilla fragrance? Unfortunately, there isn’t a cheap solution. Extracts contain too much water and ground vanilla powder acts more like an exfoliant than a fragrance. The two options are vanilla oleoresin and vanilla absolute.
Vanilla oleoresin is a semi-solid concentrate made by removing the solvent from vanilla extract. A solution of isopropanol is frequently used instead of ethanol for the preparation. Some flavor and aroma is lost during removal of the solvent, but the essential oils remain. Vanilla oleoresin is used in non-food products. Unfortunately, it isn’t
In addition to the more traditional vanilla beans and extracts, there are newer alternatives for cooking, baking and flavoring beverages. Ground vanilla beans (also called ground vanilla powder), vanilla powder and vanilla paste are flavorful, useful options. Read on to learn more.
There are several types of vanilla powders commercially available. Some are made from sucrose that has been ribbon-sprayed with vanilla extract, and some are a dextrose-vanilla extract mix. They work well in beverages if you want a slightly sweet product that dissolves easily. You can also mix them into powdered or granulated sugar for a vanilla-flavored sugar or use vanilla powder in hot chocolate mix or making packaged cake, pancake or biscuit mixes. Note: Most of the vanilla powders from Europe are actually synthetic. Check the ingredients list to see if it’s natural or not. Some may also contain
Imitation vanilla comes from synthetic vanillin, which mimics the flavor of natural vanillin, one of the components that gives vanilla its extraordinary bouquet.The first synthetics were made in Germany in the 1870s as pure vanilla was so expensive that only the wealthy could afford it. It was first made from coniferin, the glucoside that makes some pines smell a little like vanilla. In the 1890s a French chemist created a synthetic from euganol, found in cloves. The two most common sources for synthetic vanillin have been Lignin Vanillin, a by-product of the paper industry, which has been chemically treated to resemble the taste of pure vanilla extract, and Ethyl Vanillin, which is a coal-tar derivative and frequently far stronger than either Lignin Vanillin or pure vanilla.