Flavoring made by extracting the essence of vanilla beans usually in alcohol. In fact, vanilla extract is usually about 35 percent alcohol. And you can buy it in the grocery store and don't need to be 21. But you didn't hear that from me.

A good vanilla extract is essential (pardon the pun) for any quality baking. You don't want to bother with the McCormick you can get in the grocery store (although it's better than imitation vanilla)--treat yourself and go to Williams-Sonoma and get their exotic vanilla extract from Madagascar vanilla beans, or I go to my food co-op and buy Frontier Organic Vanilla Extract. Sure it's expensive, but you don't need much, and you will be a better cook without even trying.

And never, ever, EVER use imitation vanilla. It's the devil's work.

Imitation vanilla is not worth my time to disparage; real vanilla extract is worth the money; the most delicious option is to make your own.


procedure:

  • Obtain one or lots of vanilla beans (grocery / amazon / ebay). Split open the long way.

  • Put in a sealable glass container (jam jar or whatnot) and cover with alcohol.

  • Put this in a darkish cupboard and wait. Shake daily if you want to speed up the process. Your extract will probably be usable in 1-2 weeks (varies; see note below on proportions of ingredients and speed of extraction).

There's no exact math to this. One vanilla bean + lots of alcohol will turn into vanilla extract very slowly (months) and is not likely to ever be as strong as you want (although vanilla vodka is great for cocktails). A shitload of vanilla beans + just barely enough alcohol to cover them will turn into usable extract very soon (days), and over time will develop into something insanely strong. That's the approach I like to take, but most people are happier somewhere in the middle. There's really no wrong way, as the ratio of one ingredient to the other can always be altered at any point.

It's fully steeped when the color goes from tan to dark brown, and when it smells like vanilla extract. But you can use it before then - just use a tad more.

I only use ultra-cheap vodka for this - use whatever you like, but I've found there's no point in using the good stuff on this.

I've been told rum works great for this; haven't tried it myself though.

Vanilla beans keep forever if stored in a dark cool place. They do tend to dry out over time. When brittle, they're hard to scrape the delicious innards out of. Making extract is a great way to get the flavor out of even the woodiest beans. If they've seriously turned into twigs, just break them into pieces before covering with alcohol.

Similarly, if you have scraped out the seeds from the center of a vanilla bean, you can save the husk and use it to make extract; there's a ton of flavor still in there. If said husk has already been steeped in milk (as in making ice cream), you can still use it for this - just rinse it in hot water first, to prevent something disgusting from occurring.

This project is eerily infinite, in that you can keep reusing the same beans over and over. I keep two jars going, one of active, completely steeped extract, and the other one freshly covered with vodka. When one runs dry, the other one is usually ready to go. You can keep leaching flavor out of the same beans a truly insane number of times. There will come a point when you'll just know a bean is dead - it will be limp and brown instead of black. At that point, toss it.

Even though vanilla beans are hellishly expensive (for good reason though), if you do this once from scratch, you've pretty much broken even on what you would have spent on a bottle of store-bought. Do it twice, and it's free (except the 3 cents' worth of cheap vodka).

The difference between imitation vanilla extract and real vanilla extract is that imitation vanilla extract is a more pure version of the product. Real vanilla extract has many more adulterants and impurities.

Is your mind blown, gentle reader? Then please, let me explain.

The main flavoring agent in vanilla is called vanillin, which is a creative name that sounds more tasty than 4-methoxy,3-hydroxybenzaldehyde. Vanillin is a benzene derivative, with several different radical groups added to the basic structure.

If you've ever spent any time around trees, you know they don't care about you. In fact, they don't really care about much. There is quite a bit of academic debate about why plants produce chemicals: sometimes as a pesticide or herbicide, and sometimes as a way to store chemicals that they don't know what else to do with. In any case, creating a single pure product is not what plants are interested in doing. Imagine all those enzymes in the vanilla plant getting paid by the hour, and the boss really doesn't check in very often. Thus you get vanillic acid, where a hydrogen in the aldehyde group is replaced with a hydroxy group. There is also ethylvanillin, where the methoxy group is replaced with an ethyloxy group. There are, by some estimates, about 150 chemicals present in real vanilla extract, most of them slight variations on the basic formula of vanillin: a radical group taken away, added, moved from an ortho to a meta position, etcetera. All of these chemicals share the same basic structure and physical properties, such as being soluble in alcohol, but the slightly differing structure of all these chemicals gives a richer, more subtle taste to natural vanilla. It is the difference between a note played by a single instrument, and the note being played be an entire orchestra.

It is somewhat interesting that "vanilla", which is often used as a synonym for "plain" (amongst other things), can be such a complicated subject from a chemical and biological point of view.

It is also important to note that while the difference between vanillin and full vanilla extract might be of only aesthetic concern, the same principle applies for other plants. For example, the attempts to find the "active ingredient" of both the opium poppy and cannabis has led to finding single chemicals that don't provide all of the therapeutic benefits of the complete plant.

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