What's the deal with vanilla?
Why is vanilla so important in baking?
What are vanilla substitutions?
To answer these questions, I reached out to a few people that know a thing or two about baking.
I started local and got in touch with Toronto's Prairie Girl Bakery. Here's what Jean Blacklock, the Owner and President had to say:
In some recipes, pure vanilla extract adds the subtle and delicious flavour of vanilla that is easy to taste. It also enhances the flavour of other ingredients in more complex recipes. In a chocolate cake, for example, you don't taste the vanilla but without it the cake would not be as flavourful.
Vanilla substitutions don't work, in our view. Given the recent vanilla bean scarcity and resulting price increase, we have had several vanilla-related discussions at PGB, but we have never considered using the artificial extract. It has a chemical taste that is definitely not appropriate for high quality, all natural baking.
Then, I took it to the Big Apple and contacted Magnolia Bakery. You know this bakery and their cupcakes because they both made a cameo in Sex in the City, (season 3, episode 5, entitled No Ifs, Ands, Or Butts.) Below is the response from the Chief Baking Officer, Bobbie Lloyd:
Vanilla is like salt; your baked goods can taste flat without it. Chocolate is especially enhanced by the addition of vanilla. When my son was about two years old he was watching me make a vanilla bundt cake. As I placed the batter into the cake pan he tasted it and said 'Mommy, you forgot the vanilla!' He was correct. The batter had no oomph, no lift, no life.
Personally, I don't think there are any substitutes for real vanilla. If a recipe calls for vanilla, you should use it! There are different origins of vanilla with very distinct flavors. Typically in the US, we use Madagascar vanilla which has a deep, rich flavor. At Magnolia Bakery we use Madagascar vanilla.
Lastly, I took the exact same questions to Scandinavia and posed them to a Pastry Chef of a 2-Michelin Star restaurant in Stockholm called Oaxen Krog. Chef John Demetrios' offers a slightly different take as expected, since the role of a pastry chef allows for more creativity, intricacy and experimentation.
I like to think of vanilla as a spice that enhances sweetness -- the way salt brings out the best of savoury ingredients. Vanilla adds aroma in baked treats as well as custards and creams. I also think it compliments the flavours of eggs and sugar incredibly. Many chocolate producers add vanilla to their finish products, purely to give a more rounded feel on the palette.
A favourite vanilla substitute of mine is tonka beans. Tonka beans bring the same beautiful vanilla notes as well as a nuttiness. Now that I work in Sweden, we forage a wild herb called woodruff which offers the same characteristics as tonka beans and vanilla. At home I would gladly substitute vanilla for honey or a pinch of cinnamon.
So now we know that the role of vanilla, like salt, wakes up other flavours and pushes them forward.
Vanilla extract breakdown:
The FDA says that in order for vanilla extract to be labeled pure, it needs to contain 35% alcohol. And like everything else, the better the vanilla, the more expensive the price, as the process to grow, harvest and turn it into extract gets more labour intensive.
What is imitation vanilla extract made out of?
Artificial (or imitation) vanilla extract is made with a synthetic vanilla flavour called vanillin. The fake stuff has a strong vanilla flavour and is made cheaply in a lab. Business Insider says "Today, over 95% of vanilla flavoring used in foods, from cereal to ice cream, comes from vanillin."
Pure vanilla extract is made up of three pronounceable ingredients: vanilla beans, alcohol and water.
Does it really make a difference whether I use pure vs. imitation vanilla extract in baking?
We already know how two commercial bakeries and a restaurant pastry chef feel about this answer, now you'll hear from a homebaker --myself.
Short answer: F*ck yes!
Long answer: It depends on what you're baking.
I've used both the fake and the real stuff. When you're baking something with strong flavours, you can't tell the difference between imitation and pure vanilla extract. However, if you're baking something where the vanilla flavour is the star of the show, for example a vanilla pound cake, without hesitation I would definitely opt for pure vanilla extract. Especially, since it's not a burden to find at the grocery store. The pure vanilla extract sits right beside the imitation one. It's simply a matter of reading the label and paying more for quality.
Both Prairie Girl and Magnolia Bakery agree that when they're making a vanilla bean icing or cake, they prefer to use the bean over the extract to show off little specks of vanilla bean, as it looks pretty and tastes legit.
What do I do if I run out of vanilla extract?
Here are my recommendations. If you're looking for a neutral, equal amount substitution, maple syrup, bourbon or brandy work well.
Bourbon and brandy make good substitutions because these alcohols are aged in oak barrels and oak contains vanillin (a strong vanilla flavour.) Maple syrup works because it contains vanillin when heated.
Can I make my own vanilla extract?
Martha Stewart and I believe you can. Here's her recipe in her words:
The taste of vanilla is far from plain, and a gift of homemade vanilla extract will be treasured, especially by someone who loves to bake. It's a very simple project.
1. Deposit two split vanilla beans in a glass bottle or jar.
2. Add a cup of unflavored vodka. (Use the very best vodka you can find.)
3. Cap and store in a dark, cool place. Shake the bottle gently every couple weeks. After about two months, the clear vodka will turn a nice deep brown, and you'll have your very own homemade vanilla extract.
4. Clean and sterilize several small bottles with screw-on lids, and fill with the homemade extract. Add a label, tie on a ribbon, and you'll have a beautiful little gift to give.
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