My mother kept vanilla extract in a small, blue-and-white porcelain bottle. It smelled so good that one day I snuck a swig. What a shock.
Vanilla flavor is all about aroma. In extract, that aroma is captured and contained within an alcohol base. Government standards require that vanilla extract contain 35% alcohol by volume.
You may have noticed vanilla extracts or whole vanilla beans that say “Tahitian”, “Mexican”, or Madagascar Bourbon on their labels. I had and wondered: could I really taste a difference? So I jumped at the chance to join a group from The San Francisco Professional Food Society at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California-San Francisco for a tasting.
On each table sat three bowls of softly whipped cream. One was flavored with Tahitian vanilla, one with Mexican, and one with Madagascar Bourbon. They were not labeled. Our job? To taste (not devour) them and see what differences we could sense and describe.
Beth Nielsen, Chief Culinary Officer of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas and sponsor of the event, circulated among the tables as we tasted, discussed, and then tasted again. And again.
I wanted to share this experience with my family, one of whom requested—and received—a birthday lunch of a can of whipped cream. (We wanted to share with the dog but the can’s fizzing scared him.) Ms. Nielsen kindly obliged and sent samples of the three vanilla extracts as well as a small bottle of vanilla bean paste—a blend of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract and vanilla bean seeds in a syrupy base.
Then the children did what children often do—disappeared, despite the lure of all the whipped cream they could eat plus a gluten-free rhubarb-strawberry crisp. (I used Deborah Madison’s recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone using Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Baking Mix instead of flour plus a little Xanthum gum, plus oats, sugar, butter, and pecans.) With it in the oven burbling, G and I sat down to three identical bowls of whipped cream.
I had labeled the bottom of the bowls and whipped cream with some sugar. I then weighed the same amount into each bowl and folded in an equal amount of extract. And then I closed my eyes and moved the bowls around until I was thoroughly confused.
My notes from this second tasting mirrored those from the first. The Tahitian was the easiest to identify; it has a wonderfully soft, floral, marshmallow flavor. The Mexican had, to me, woody notes, with a rich flavor. The Madagascar tasted sweet, with a milky flavor that seemed complex and round. At the original tasting, we had pinched, prodded, and sniffed Mexican, Madagascar, and Tahitian beans. The Tahitian were very fat, and almost juicy in texture. This time, as well as tasting the vanilla, we sniffed the bottles of extract. Despite the alcohol, the differences were pronounced. The flavor of the Madagascar is the most familiar to me; it is what my mother used and I buy it by the quart when I find it on sale online.
In general, flavor is mostly aroma: our noses give nuance to flavor while our tongues offer impressions of sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami (“meatiness” or “deliciousness”; think MSG). In vanilla, the aroma is easily lost if the beans or extract is exposed to heat. So Nielsen-Massey cold extracts the vanilla beans for their extracts. In cooking, to preserve as much flavor as possible, take care to add extract once the sauce or custard has come off the fire. The flavor of the Tahitian is even more fragile; suggested uses include those items that will not be exposed to high heat such as frozen desserts and smoothies. Mexican, with its warm spice notes, particularly complements citrus, chocolate, and chili as well as cookies and cakes. The Madagascar Bourbon (Bourbon refers to the island chain to which Madagascar belongs) is terrific for all-purpose cooking.
I suppose I should mention imitation vanilla, which I have never tasted myself. I believe in whole, natural foods and imitation vanilla begins as a by-product of paper making and/or a coal tar. Flavor compounds in these materials, such as lignin which is the major flavor component of vanilla beans, too, is chemically extracted and purified. In the case of flavor, I think the whole (vanilla has hundreds of individual components) is more than the sum of individual parts or chemical compounds.