Why do chocolate and vanilla taste different?

Everything you need to know about vanilla pods

Which vanilla products are best suited for what

From candles and perfume to air fresheners for the car - there is probably no product that does not have a vanilla fragrance variant (unfortunately in most cases with an inexpensive imitation). Real vanilla can also work wonders when it comes to taste: it gives creamy desserts depth and cakes, icings and chocolate that certain something. So how about you quickly bake those chocolate chip cookies and then read on?

Although vanilla is so widespread, it is only grown in a few places in the world. Good quality vanilla is entirely hand-processed from harvest to fermentation (yes, it is fermented), making it an extremely labor-intensive product. That's why you've probably noticed the high prices for vanilla pods in the supermarket. Strange that vanilla can still be found in so many products, isn't it? In fact, only 1% of the vanilla used is made from real vanilla pods.

Whether you just want to get the most out of your precious vanilla pod or you've always wondered what the difference between vanilla essence and vanilla extract is - it's time to delve into the intoxicating history of vanilla.

Vanilla comes from the vanilla orchid native to Mexico, where it has been used by the indigenous people since ancient times. To make vanilla, the vanilla pods of the orchid are fermented and then dried. Meanwhile, however, Madagascar and Indonesia are the most productive vanilla exporters.

The most valuable variety is Tahitian vanilla, while Madagascar vanilla, with its thin, elongated pod, is the most widely available variety of vanilla worldwide. The Bourbon vanilla comes from the island of Réunion and has borne its name since it was occupied by the French Bourbon kings, who exported the precious pod. This variety is grown in Madagascar today and is also known as "Madagascar vanilla".

Of course, the vanilla from each region has a different taste profile: Mexican vanilla is said to be spicier and earthier, Tahitian vanilla has a milder, flowery aroma and Madagascar vanilla has the vanilla taste that is typical for us.

Why is vanilla so expensive?

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. In our local ice cream parlor, there is even an information sheet next to the vanilla ice cream that explains why it is the most valuable variety in the ice cream chest.

While the subject is very complex, there are broadly two key factors that determine the price of vanilla: labor-intensive production and the climate. Once vanilla is grown outside of its native Mexico, the particular species of bee that helps pollinate between male and female parts of the orchid is missing. This means that in places like Madagascar, every single vanilla orchid has to be hand-pollinated on the day the plant flowers. It then takes 9 months for the seed pods to ripen. Only then does processing begin, in which the vanilla pod is blanched, fermented and dried over a period of several weeks.

In addition, the high price of vanilla means that there is a risk that the precious harvest will be plundered. This in turn makes production expectations unpredictable for buyers. Unlike Madagascar, where a traditional harvesting method is used, some countries, e.g. B. Indonesia, vanilla pods in mass production. The pods are harvested before they are ripe and then dried using kerosene instead of the sun. The result is a cheaper, poorer quality product.

Because vanilla orchids grow best in very hot, humid climates, the vanilla pod is generally harvested in tropical countries, many of them islands that can be affected by extreme weather conditions. In 2017, Madagascar, the world's largest supplier of vanilla, was hit by a cyclone. Huge areas of vanilla crops were damaged, bringing the price per kilo to a record $ 600. Since Madagascar grows almost 80% of the world's vanilla production, smaller producers in growing areas such as Hawaii, India and Indonesia were unable to meet global demand.

Vanilla in all its forms and variants

A vanilla pod is the real vanilla. It is usually sold in an airtight container because dried vanilla pods lose their flavor quickly. It is best to buy pods that are packed in a glass tube or have been vacuum-sealed. Keep your vanilla in a cool, dark place at home. It is important to check the label for the origin of the bean: also make sure that it is certified fair trade vanilla, which guarantees farmers in poor countries like Madagascar competitive prices and makes them run sustainably.

In desserts, the sliced ​​pod is mainly used in conjunction with hot liquids, such as fruit compotes or vanilla pudding. This has the advantage that the pod as a whole can give off its aroma to the liquid. Sometimes the vanilla pulp is just scraped out and added to a cookie dough at room temperature or stirred into vanilla buttercream. In the end there is an empty pod, but you should never throw it away! We'll tell you why in a moment.

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To scrape the pulp out of the vanilla pod, the pod is simply cut lengthways with a small kitchen knife and halved, so to speak. You can then easily remove the seeds from the pod with the back of the knife.

How to get the most out of the leftover vanilla pod

Make your own vanilla sugar

Vanilla is expensive - before you throw the shell away, you should definitely keep using the fragrant pod! Make your own vanilla sugar by placing the scraped-out vanilla pod in a sealable container with sugar and letting it stand for at least a week. The taste and aroma of the vanilla are then absorbed into the sugar. Use it when baking, stirred into coffee and tea or sprinkled over French toast and crepes.

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Homemade vanilla sugar

Make your own vanilla extract

You can make homemade vanilla extract by caramelizing the sugar and water, and adding the vanilla pulp and pod. You can store and use homemade extract just like you bought something.

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Homemade vanilla extract

If you have more time available, you can also make your own vanilla extract by storing the scraped-out vanilla pulp together with an odorless, clear alcohol such as vodka in an airtight glass or bottle for at least 3 months. The liquid will gradually darken and must be topped up with alcohol at regular intervals. Keep the bottle in a dark, cool place and use it like a store-bought vanilla extract.

Prepare simple vanilla syrup or vanilla maple syrup

Making a vanilla syrup is very easy! While the syrup is boiling, a scraped-out vanilla pod is added. This syrup gives cocktails a special aroma - try this Dark 'n' Stormy with its distinctive rum note. Another variation is adding a scraped-out vanilla pod to a bottle of maple syrup that you put in the refrigerator for at least a week. A world class pancake syrup is ready.

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Refine recipes based on liquid

Liquids help extract the maximum flavor from a scraped-out vanilla pod. Use the pod in recipes with a liquid base such as jam, vanilla ice cream, compote, panna cotta, or dulce de leche.

The most common forms of vanilla on the market

Vanilla extract is not to be confused with vanilla essence, which is made via a synthetic compound, while vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla pulp in alcohol. Some manufacturers use additives in this process, including the usual suspects like sugar or corn syrup. It is best to choose the product with the shortest list of ingredients. Extracts should also be sold in dark bottles so that the taste and color are not affected by heat and light.

Vanilla paste is a thickened mixture of vanilla extract and vanilla pulp - here, too, you should always pay attention to natural thickeners and minimal additives. Since the paste contains vanilla seeds, the typical black dots become visible when used. As with vanilla extract, one teaspoon is the same as one vanilla pod.

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Homemade custard cream

Vanilla was one of the first flavors to be synthetically replicated in the 19th century and sold as an inexpensive alternative in the form of vanilla essence. It is made from the flavor compound vanillin (the top note of vanilla, so to speak), which can be obtained from wood, clove oil or petrochemical (yuck!) Products, for example. The essence is usually diffused into an odorless carrier liquid such as oil.

Most of the vanilla that is used to flavor vanilla foods comes from the vanillin flavor mixture and not from a real vanilla pod. One teaspoon is equivalent to one vanilla pod.

The vanilla sugar in paper bags, which is widely used in Europe and which is sprinkled on baked goods, mostly comes from mass production and contains artificial vanilla essence. However, it can also be made naturally by mixing a vanilla pod or extract with sugar.

While there is no real alternative to vanilla, there are several ingredients that can give your desserts a mild, vanilla-like taste.

Aromatic tonka beans are the most popular substitute for vanilla pods. If you open a container with tonka beans, you can already smell the notes of almonds, cherries or, as many say, vanilla - and just like real vanilla pods, the scent of tonka beans is also very complex. In Central and South America, where they have been used for centuries, the dried beans look somewhat like large, wrinkled almonds that develop their aroma when grated.

Tonka beans are currently banned in the US because, like cinnamon, they contain toxic coumarin and, in large quantities, can be dangerous to the liver. They are otherwise available anywhere in the world (and are illegally imported into the US). Since tonka bean flavor, like most spices, is only used in small amounts, an extremely high dosage of the bean is required to cause harm to the human body.

Almond extract gives a nice base aroma in dishes that use vanilla. If you use almond extract, however, you should cut the amount of vanilla in half, otherwise the taste will be too intense. Take a look at our recipe for deep-fried pudding, which also uses almond extract.

A tablespoon of maple syrup can add a touch of its woody base and caramel notes to your recipe. When using maple syrup in your recipe, however, you should reduce the sugar content accordingly - like with these shortbread cookies, where the original recipe is modified.

Do you have any more tips to get the most out of a vanilla pod? Or do you know another alternative to vanilla that we have not yet presented? Let us know in the comments!

Published on August 31, 2018