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  • Writer's pictureSandra Cesca

Vanilla: Pure or Imitation

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

When I was little, the smell of vanilla as my mama added it to the chocolate chip cookie dough would send me into a state of bliss such that I would begin eating the raw dough! Most people love the smell of vanilla--think candles, perfume, hand lotion, and air freshener. Or the taste such as vanilla ice cream, vanilla fudge, or hot vanilla sauce. Today however it is a challenge to find really good vanilla. Why? Read on.

Vanilla is the second most expensive “flavoring” in the world after saffron. This is due mainly to the labor intensive growing and curing processes. Consequently, some producers take shortcuts in an effort to lower the price and thus sell more to unsuspecting buyers. However, these shortcuts also lower the quality. Vanilla beans cultivated around the world originally all came from Mexico when Cortes sent samples of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planiolia) back to Spain where they eventually spread to other growing areas around the world including Madagascar, Indonesia, Reunion (at the time called “Il de Bourbon”) and Tonga.

Pure Vanilla Extract is a complex flavor, comprised of approximately 300 individual flavor components all working together to create its rich flavor and bouquet. Vanillin is the primary chemical component of the extract of the vanilla bean. To produce premium pure vanilla extracts it always begins with the beans. You cannot produce high quality extracts with inferior quality beans! It can be found in several strengths called fold: single (1X) and double (2X) are common for the baking industry. There is even a 60X strength available only to industrial users where excessive liquid is a problem.

Pure Mexican Vanilla has at least a 35% alcohol content and higher natural vanillin concentration. It is therefore best utilized in those items which require high heat such as baking. This allows much of the alcohol to cook out. The balance is water. The color is light brown from the cured beans. Although expensive, this is the BEST vanilla you can buy in Mexico. Thus another clue to finding good quality vanilla extract is the price.

Traditional Mexican Vanilla has 10% alcohol (90% water) and less than 1% of natural vanillin. The vanillin helps hold the flavor. Also the less alcohol makes the vanilla much more versatile and can be used for anything that calls for vanilla such as French toast, smoothies, homemade ice cream, whip cream, cookies, cakes, oatmeal, etc.

Artificial Vanilla Extract In the 1880s the first synthetic vanillas came from Germany, providing a cheaper alternative to natural vanilla. Soon it was discovered that synthetic vanillin could be made from the waste water of paper pulp and coal tar processing. Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean began selling cheap synthetic vanillas hoping to cash in on Mexico’s vanilla connection.

There are numerous words used to label “vanilla” sold in stores today. BEWARE! The cheap product in the big bottle is not vanilla. It is imitation vanilla with unknown ingredients. Make sure the brown bottle doesn’t contain clear “vanilla” liquid. Other labels you will run across:

Natural and Artificial Vanillas are a blend of natural vanilla fortified with artificial vanillin, flavors and other “ingredients.”

Clear vanilla is artificial vanillin. It’s often called “crystal vanilla.”

Dark and murky is synthetic vanillin, most likely ethyl vanillin derived from coal tar. It may also be dark because it contains red dye or caramel (carmelo) coloring.

Coumarin is a cheap additive made from tonka beans. It has a similar taste and aroma to vanilla but is a known liver toxin. It should be labeled as such.

Bourbon or Madagascar vanilla has a classic robust flavor. Tahitian vanilla is subtly fruity and floral. Mexican vanilla tends to be smooth and spicy.

Make your own vanilla by soaking 3 whole vanilla beans in one cup of vodka for at least one month. Keep in a dark cool place and shake occasionally. Vodka has the most neutral flavor, but you can also use bourbon, brandy or rum.

Vanilla is sold all over Vallarta. Read the label then smell the vanilla. Beans can be found for sale at The Vanilla House (Morelos 128, El Centro) and at the Vallarta Botanical Gardens.

If you want to read more about art and culture from my travels, go here. If you are ever in Vallarta and would like to take a walking tour with me, go to my Walking Tours website for more information and photos.

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