Looking to use vanilla extract in your next dessert recipe? Let me help you! This comprehensive guide will answer all your questions about vanilla extract. Learn everything there is to know from all the different flavors and types of vanilla available to how to use them. Also, learn why it’s so expensive! Keep reading to find out more.
Here Is Everything There Is To Know About Vanilla
Vanilla is one of the most repeated ingredients in almost every single baking recipe. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a recipe that doesn’t call for it. It adds flavor depth and is essential for creating the smooth and robust flavor that we love in our baked goods.
But, when it comes to the actual ingredient, you might find yourself wondering:
- What is the difference between vanilla extract and imitation vanilla essence?
- Can they both be used interchangeably?
- And, why is vanilla so expensive?
Trust me- when I started baking, I asked these questions too!
It may be one of the most overlooked ingredients in baking, but I’m about to answer all of your questions – even some you didn’t think to ask! In this guide, you’ll learn about where vanilla comes from, how it is used, and what all the different types are.
Let’s get started.
What Is Vanilla Extract?
First, let’s look at what vanilla is. Vanilla is simply a food flavoring primarily used in desserts and sweet drinks.
Pure vanilla extract is a baking ingredient that is extracted from the vanilla bean plant. The entire process is very meticulous. It involves manufacturers slowly percolating chopped vanilla beans with ethyl alcohol and water, usually in steel containers.
They have to monitor the temperature closely and keep it cool in order to maintain as much flavor as possible. Doing all of this takes about 48 hours from start to finish. Then, it sits in the steel drums and waits until the company is ready to bottle and ship it out around the world.
People then use vanilla extract in their cooking, baking, and even to add a vanilla flavor to their mixed drinks.
Pure Vanilla Extract vs. Vanilla Essence – What Is the Difference?
Now that you know what vanilla extract is, let’s look closer at its cheaper lookalike – vanilla essence.
If you have ever been to the grocery store before, you probably saw a really expensive bottle of vanilla extract next to a much more affordable imitation vanilla flavoring. So, what is the difference between them?
The biggest difference between pure vanilla extract and vanilla essence is how much alcohol and water mixture it has. In fact, it’s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that regulates whether companies can put real vanilla or imitation on the labels.
FDA regulates a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans to a gallon of a minimum of 35% alcohol to 65% water mixture for a product to be labeled as pure vanilla extract.
Imitation vanilla contains a synthetic ingredient called vanillin. This is made with chemicals, not from pure vanilla beans. It is made with:
- Propylene glycol
- Chemically produced flavors (that vanillin)
Between the two of them, vanilla extract has a stronger flavor that tastes much more like a pure vanilla bean.
Where Does Vanilla Come From?
Vanilla plants that produce beans for pure vanilla extract only grow within 10-20 degrees of the equator. Most of the vanilla beans sold commercially are grown in just three places…
Why Is Pure Vanilla Extract So Expensive?
Pure vanilla extract is expensive because it takes so long to produce. For example, it takes 3-5 years for a vanilla orchid to fully mature. Plus, it can only grow in certain areas of the world.
Madagascar produces nearly 80% of the world’s vanilla. In 2018, terrible weather hit Madagascar and caused lots of failed vanilla crops. This made the price of vanilla beans soar to $600 per kilogram – that is 10 times more expensive than before the bad weather.
Remember, cost always follows supply and demand. Vanilla is already tough to produce, and when bad weather makes the supply even smaller, the cost will go way up. There will probably never be a time when there isn’t a demand for vanilla extract.
The Most Popular Vanilla Flavors You Can Find
~This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one and make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no additional cost to you. I only ever recommend the ingredients or tools I use for my recipes. You can read more about our disclosure policy here ~
Did you know there are more than 300 varieties of vanilla plants? I didn’t- it blew my mind! These vanilla bean plants grow all over the world. Out of those 300 plants, only two are used to produce the commercial vanilla extract.
When you go looking to buy vanilla, these are the kinds you will run into the most (and what makes them different from one other.)
Mexico is known as the birthplace of vanilla because the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia Andrews) originated here. In fact, it was the best-kept secret of the Totonac Indians for centuries!
For more than 300 years, vanilla could only be grown in Mexico, all thanks to a bee. Yes, that little pollinator! Because the Melipona bee was the only insect that could pollinate the vanilla orchid flower, vanilla was only ever grown in Mexico.
As far as flavor profile goes, Mexican vanilla is rich and spicy with woody notes. It tastes similar to clove or nutmeg.
Mexican vanilla can be used for anything that regular vanilla is used for. Here are some of my favorite ideas:
You can find Mexican Vanilla on Amazon or at any bakery specialty supply store. I am partial to Nielsen Massey vanillas but you can find all kinds of lovely Mexican vanilla brands to test and try.
Madagascar is an island in Southern Africa, part of the Bourbon Islands. When you hear someone reference Madagascar bourbon, they are actually referring to the region, not the alcohol. The story of how they learned to grow vanilla beans is kinda funny – it all started with a smuggler.
Sometime in the 1790s, a vanilla vine was smuggled to these islands from Mexico. For like 50 years, people struggled to grow the vanilla there. They could grow flowers, but they couldn’t get those flowers to turn into vanilla beans. This is because they didn’t bring the Melipona bee with them. (I told you that bee was important!)
Finally, in 1841 Edmond Albius found a way to fertilize vanilla flowers by hand. Now, with the hot and humid climate of Madagascar and rich soil, hand pollination made it possible to produce enough vanilla beans to sell them commercially.
And, this kind of vanilla extract is a serious contender in baking treats and desserts. Madagascar vanilla has a sweet and creamy flavor. It’s more mellow than the spicier Mexican vanilla.
If you need mild-tasting vanilla, use this kind. Here are some of the most popular ways people use it:
You can find Madascar Burbon Vanilla on Amazon or at any bakery specialty supply store.
Bourbon vanilla refers to the Bourbon Islands – of which Madagascar is a part. Whenever people search for Bourbon vanilla, they will find the most commonly used variety of vanilla extract.
Although all types of vanilla extract contain alcohol, bourbon vanilla refers to the location. It does not have any bourbon whisky in it!
It has the same taste as Madagascar vanilla, so you can use it in the same way.
Tahiti is an island in the south Pacific. Since it has the same general distance from the equator as Madagascar, it also has the ideal climate for growing vanilla beans.
Tahitian vanilla originated in 1848 when French Admiral Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin brought Vanilla aromatica plants to Tahiti. Two years later, French Admiral Louis-Adolphe Bonard brought Vanilla fragrans to Tahiti. The people on the island cross-bred the two plants, and that’s how we got today’s Tahitian vanilla beans – Vanilla tahitensis.
Since it is a completely different plant, it has a very different taste as well. I would definitely not compare it to the other vanillas. Tahitian vanilla has a sort of fruity flavor with cherry and almond notes. It keeps its flavor in cold desserts very well but tends to lose some of its punch when heated.
Use it in these kinds of no-bake recipes:
- No-Bake Cookies
- No Bake Cream Pies
- Ice Cream ( especially good in Vanilla ice cream)
You can find Tahitian Vanilla on Amazon, or specialty baking supply stores. I find this one a little trickier to get, but it’s worth it if you make a lot of ice cream desserts or no-bake desserts.
A very popular method of baking is to use vanilla beans instead of vanilla extract. One vanilla bean pod will replace one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.
You should be able to find vanilla beans at your grocery store. If you can’t find them there, you can buy them online from Amazon!
Some people like to make their own vanilla extract from the pods. Other ideas for using vanilla beans include:
- Making flavored coffee
- Steeping them in milk or cream to make natural vanilla creamer
- Simmering them on the stove for the aroma
I buy my vanilla beans from a Canadian company called The Vanilla Food Company (not sponsored!). Great little company with excellent customer service, fast shipping and they do ship to the US. I get plump, fresh, amazing vanilla beans from this supplier.
Vanilla Bean Paste
Vanilla bean paste is made by blending two pure ingredients together:
- Concentrated vanilla extract
- Vanilla bean powder
The result is a paste that has the same consistency as maple syrup. Sometimes it will have flecks that came from the vanilla pod!
Bakers that use vanilla bean paste have found that it has a more intense flavor than regular vanilla extract. Many like to use it when they are making crème brûlée.
Note: If you are buying vanilla bean paste and you are watching your sugar intake closely, check the ingredients label. Some companies use sugar or corn syrup as a binder in vanilla bean paste.
Frequently Asked Questions About Vanilla
There are lots of questions people have about this little ingredient. Here are the most popular ones people ask!
If you have a question, please leave it in the comments.
Is It Okay To Use Cheap Imitation Vanilla?
It is perfectly fine to use cheaper imitation vanilla essence in place of real vanilla extract. Your desserts or recipes will still have the same texture and taste. I have one warning, though.
If you are making something that needs to have a strong vanilla flavor – like vanilla cupcakes – then you really should use real vanilla. The difference in taste might be minuscule or barely noticeable, but it will help the vanilla taste purer if you use the real thing.
The brand I pick up most often when using essence is Mccormick vanilla extract. You can find Mccormick on Amazon, or in most grocery stores.
Is Beaver Gland Castoreum Really Used In Vanilla Flavors?
No, it is not.
There is a common myth out there that if you see “vanilla flavor” on an ingredient list, it is made from castoreum, a substance derived from beaver anal glands.
According to the Vegetarian Resource Blog, “castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human food use.” Generally, if a processed food uses imitation vanilla, it will be produced chemically – not from a beaver.
Is There Alcohol In Vanilla Extract?
Yes, there is alcohol in vanilla extract. Pure vanilla extract is 35% alcohol – that is 70 proof. It has ethanol in it, which is the same alcohol that is in beer and liquor. You’d have to drink 4-5 ounces (about 1/2 cup) to get drunk.
There is a kind of vanilla extract that doesn’t have any alcohol, natural vanilla flavor, which is made with glycerin and propylene glycol. It’s a little darker than natural vanilla extract and smells differently, too. People say it tastes so similar that you don’t really notice the difference.
In fact, you will know it doesn’t have alcohol in it if the label says “vanilla flavor”. The Standard Of Identity (which are rules people must follow for food labels) says that it cannot be labeled as an extract if it doesn’t have alcohol.
How Can I Tell The Difference Between Pure Vanilla And Essence?
The FDA is very strict about food labels. If it passes the FDA’s requirements as pure vanilla, it will say vanilla extract on the label. If it does not meet those standards, it will say imitation.
Does Pure Vanilla Extract Have Sugar In It?
The FDA does not require vanilla manufacturers to list whether it has sugar, corn syrup, caramel color, or additives in it. Some companies will be transparent and disclose this and others might not.
If you are trying to eat less sugar or don’t want to consume any added sugar, check with the company and ask what kind of sugar it is made from.
Fun Fact: There are sugar-free vanilla extracts out there. I just found out William Massey (my favorite vanillas) come in a sugar-free version!
There you have it! That is probably everything you ever wanted to know about vanilla – and more! It might be pricy, but pure vanilla extract really is worth every penny. It’s more noticeable when you use it on things that are no-bake, like frostings and custards.
Overall, you can probably get away with using the cheaper imitation essence, but at least you now know when to use the real stuff.