As you probably gathered from the title, this edition of Toolbox Talk is all about vanilla flavouring - the various forms of it, and specifically the most common forms and brands used in cookie dough (as opposed to icing) around the world. As always, I did my own personal experiments. This time, they were focused on understanding the relative intensity of various vanilla forms and how they withstand the baking process.
Also, my apologies for the delay in posting this edition; there were lots of lessons to be learned about vanilla, as you'll soon see. But, first, some background . . .
It was only in 1841, after an effective method for hand-pollination of the orchid flowers was devised, that the vanilla-orchid plant could be taken by colonizers from Mexico to other parts of the world and successfully cultivated. Now, roughly 75 percent of vanilla on the market comes from vanilla plants grown in Madagascar and Réunion, islands just east of the southern portion of Africa. This vanilla (of the genus-species Vanilla planifolia, or V. planifolia, for short) is commonly known as Madagascar or Bourbon (or Madagascar Bourbon) vanilla, as Réunion was formerly called Île Bourbon. The rest of our vanilla is of three species and harks largely from Indonesia (V. planifolia), Mexico (V. planifolia), Tahiti/French Polynesia (V. tahitensis), the West Indies/Caribbean (V. pompona), South and Central America (V. pompona), and, to a lesser extent, Uganda (V. planifolia). (Sources: Huffington Post, Wikipedia, and Nielsen-Massey.)
Vanilla beans have distinct components to their flavour and smell, due to variations in plant species, and the growing regions' climate, soil, and methods of harvesting and curing (treating, drying, and/or aging) the beans. For example, Madagascar Bourbon vanilla has a well-rounded, mellow, and creamy flavour, and, because it harks from the top-producing region, its flavor is what people most often associate with "vanilla." By contrast, Mexican vanilla is more robust, spicy, and woody. Ugandan vanilla, while more uncommon, has a uniquely chocolaty flavor. Indonesian vanilla, which often involves production shortcuts and is thus cheaper, has a sharper taste than most others. And Tahitian vanilla tastes flowery or fruity and is more heat-sensitive. As such, some say it smells better than it flavours. (Sources: SpicesInc.com and Nielsen-Massey.)
Because of its labour-intensive pollination, harvesting, and curing processes, real vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron. Fortunately for those in search of cheaper alternatives, vanillin (one of the hundreds of organic compounds in natural vanilla that give it flavour) was isolated and replicated from other sources in 1874. (Source: Wikipedia.) This synthetic "vanilla" boosted the availability of the flavouring due to its affordability, and allowed "vanilla" to become (arguably) the world’s most popular flavouring by the early 1900s. (Even most of our survey respondents favor vanilla in their cookie dough! More on those results, below.)
Forms and Uses
Vanilla flavouring comes in a vast array of natural and artificial forms. Let's talk about the natural forms first, and how they are typically used . . .
Pods (aka beans) are often sold individually or in small numbers in jars, and can be split lengthwise to remove the seeds. Alternatively, the empty husks can be used to impart flavour to heated milk or cream, and then removed, as is often done in the making of sauces and puddings.
Seeds are scraped out of the pods and can be added directly to food. Of course, they will stay visible in the end product.
Ground vanilla is a form in which the whole pod, both husk and seeds, is ground. Again, it can be added directly to food, and will also remain visible.
In pure vanilla extract, the vanilla flavour is extracted from the pods (by steeping them in alcohol or using cold extraction methods) and usually mixed with alcohol and water. In order for vanilla extract to be called "pure" in the United States, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that the extract contain at least 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid and at least 35% alcohol. The FDA also limits the permissible ingredients beyond beans and alcohol. These minimum requirements constitute what is called single-fold (or single-strength) vanilla extract, which is what is commonly found on grocery store shelves in the US. Higher, more concentrated "folds" exist, but they are usually reserved for commercial purposes. Some non-US companies make alcohol-free "extract", but to be called "extract" in the US, the flavouring must contain the minimum amount of alcohol noted above, again per FDA rules. (Sources: Nielsen-Massey, FDA.)
Vanilla paste is typically a combination of pure extract and real vanilla seeds with a thickener (often natural gum tragacanth or xanthan gum), mineral water, glycerine, and a sweetener, such as glucose.
Now let's talk about artificial forms of vanilla, or forms that can be both artificial and natural . . .
Vanilla essence (also called artificial or imitation vanilla extract in some parts) is as the latter name sounds: a synthetic form of vanilla extract. As noted earlier, artificial vanilla flavouring uses a synthetic version of vanillin, one of the flavour compounds in real vanilla, created from lignin (a natural polymer found in wood, and a byproduct of the paper-making process). Vanilla essence also has water and alcohol, and sometimes corn syrup, in it. And, depending on whether additional coloring has been added, it can be either clear or brown.
Vanilla oil is usually chemically constructed with a propylene glycol base. It should not be confused with vanilla essential oil, which isn't always food-grade and is often intended for topical therapeutic purposes or used in perfumery and pharmaceutical products.
Vanilla powder is dehydrated vanilla extract sometimes mixed with maltodextrin, evaporated cane juice, silica, and/or cellulose. It can be either all-natural or artificial, so read your labels! Its advantages are that it is alcohol-free and colorless, so it is useful in color-sensitive recipes like icing.
In vanilla emulsion, the flavouring is suspended in a base of mostly water, through the help of an emulsifying agent that keeps the mixture from separating. According to LorAnn Oils, a primary manufacturer of bakery emulsions, "Water is a more neutral carrier than alcohol - it imparts no added flavor and does not evaporate as rapidly when exposed to heat. [It] allows the flavor to taste better, smell better, and not 'bake-out' as readily as a traditional alcohol-based extract. Emulsions are ideal for baking and to flavor frosting, but are not appropriate for flavoring chocolate or hard candy due to their high water content . . ."
This all said, it's hopefully becoming clear that the "best" form of vanilla depends on your specific application. As the folks at LorAnn rightly pointed out, alcohol is very volatile and quickly evaporates (that is why it is so great for airbrushing and painting on cookies). But this also means that many of the flavour components in real (alcohol-based) vanilla extract get lost during the baking process, thus making the case for using other alcohol-free forms (i.e., emulsions, powders, ground vanilla, etc.) in baking. On the other hand, in cold applications, synthetic vanillin cannot begin to mimic the complexity and fullness of real vanilla.
Brands and Forms Around the World
One might think that vanilla is the same all around the world, as it is produced in and distributed from such a small production area. The tricky part lies in the different forms in which vanilla is available and how those compare to each other!
The availability of different vanilla forms is also very variable around the world. When searching Amazon.com for vanilla available in the US, I found such a choice in brands (in just the first page of results): Nielsen-Massey, McCormick, Simply Organic, Molina, LorAnn Oils . . . And the labels often state the origin of the vanilla. The most common form seems to be extract, though I also saw two options for paste, two for ground vanilla, one bottle of imitation vanilla, and a bottle of blended real vanilla and synthetic vanillin. [EDITOR'S NOTE: My local groceries in St. Louis, Missouri carry Nielsen-Massey, Spice Island, Morton & Bassett, McCormick, Lochhead (a local Missouri brand), and private-label store brands in forms including whole beans, pure extract, imitation extract, paste, and powder. I have never seen a ground version of vanilla on US grocery store shelves.]
On Amazon.co.uk, there is less variety in brands. As for extracts, Nielsen-Massey is the main brand, but there are also local brands. Pastes are better represented than on the American site.
By contrast, my home country of South Africa has just two companies that manufacture and primarily wholesale real vanilla products. The first, Vanilla Man, is dedicated to the import of Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar and Uganda, and supplies a wide variety of forms, though no emulsion. The second is Creative Flavors International, which supplies real vanilla flavour (or extract), artificial essence, and paste to the food service industry, and to retail customers in bulk on special order. In baking supply shops, both clear and coloured synthetic vanilla essences are available in abundance from two big food brands. Barco, another local company, supplies vanilla oil. A very limited amount of Nielsen-Massey products is also available. However, I couldn't find any suppliers of vanilla emulsion.
I also checked the online shop of a Belgian baking supply store, and vanilla was not listed. When I asked, they said they have pods, extract, essence, and oil. A second (smaller) baking supply shop only offers small vials of Dr. Oetker Butter-Vanille Aroma (aka essence) and vanilla beans. The online shops of two supermarkets only offer small sachets of sugar with vanilla flavour!
As usual, I wanted to try out things myself. Back in 2009, the team at Cook's Illustrated magazine did a very comprehensive comparison of natural and synthetic vanilla extracts which concluded that taste-testers couldn't distinguish between the two, and that a good quality synthetic product works just as well in baked goods. (Confirmation of my assertion that the goodness of real vanilla evaporates with the alcohol!)
So, for this post, I wanted to do something different - to compare vanilla in different forms, not just extracts, and to test the relative intensity of the flavouring after baking. For the natural vanilla forms (seeds, ground vanilla, and paste), I used the products of Vanilla Man, thereby minimizing any differences in flavour due to differences in origin or harvesting/processing techniques. For the essence, I used Moir's brand and, for the oil, I used Barco brand. Again, I could not find an emulsion for these tests, unfortunately.
In my first test, I made five batches of cookie dough (using Sweet Sugarbelle's recipe that yields about 2 1/2 dozen medium-sized cookies) and added one form of flavoring, in the same quantity, to each batch of dough:
- Star - 1 tablespoon vanilla seeds;
- Square - 1 tablespoon ground vanilla;
- Heart - 1 tablespoon vanilla paste;
- Triangle - 1 tablespoon artificial vanilla essence; and
- Round - 1 tablespoon artificial vanilla oil.
In a second test, I again made five batches of dough, but I adjusted the quantity of flavoring in each to reflect the equivalent of three vanilla beans:
- Star - 1/4 teaspoon vanilla seeds;
- Square - 1 teaspoon ground vanilla;
- Heart - 6 teaspoons (aka 2 tablespoons) vanilla paste;
- Triangle - 3 teaspoons (aka 1 tablespoon) artificial vanilla essence; and
- Round - 1/2 tablespoon artificial vanilla oil.
These equivalencies were provided by the manufacturers except for the case of the vanilla oil. The Barco folks could not tell me the equivalency, but because some people commented in the first test that the cookies with oil had a funny aftertaste, I halved the oil in this test. Please note that the equivalencies stated here are particular to the products I used, and will not apply across brands.
Again, the top row shows the raw cookies; the bottom row contains baked cookies.
My family, colleagues, and neighbours got to blind-taste the un-iced cookies in each case and give their opinions. I did the tasting as a blind test, because the appearance of the cookies, especially in the first series, gave so much away. When a group of people got to see the cookies before tasting them, the vanilla seeds in the star cookie were recognized as such, and existing opinions and preconceptions came to the fore, which then influenced the taste test.
In the first series of cookies, those with ground vanilla were the outspoken favourites, with the vanilla paste cookies coming in second place. Third place was shared by the others. Some people picked up that the cookies with vanilla seeds tasted different, but only one person chose them as the favourite; other people said those cookies had no vanilla taste at all. The cookies with vanilla paste and vanilla essence were perceived as bland or mild. As noted earlier, the cookie with oil flavouring was said to have an unpleasant aftertaste. By contrast, the cookie with ground vanilla was described as "definitely vanilla", "more earthy", and "creamy".
In the second series of cookies, the ones with ground vanilla were, once again, judged to have the best flavour. The others were deemed very similar. In fact, people found it more difficult to comment in general, as they couldn't distinguish among many of the cookies. It was a surprise to me that cookies with real paste and seeds didn’t stand out more! I wonder if our idea of what vanilla should taste like is distorted by all the other food products available to us which have been given vanilla flavour the artificial way?! Or if I simply didn't use enough of these seemingly less potent forms for the quantity of dough I made?
Now, what did our very own Cookie Connection members have to say about their vanilla use in cookie dough? Well, we surveyed you a while ago, and the results that follow reflect answers from the 160 people who had responded by the time I wrote this post. [EDITOR'S NOTE: If you haven't yet answered this survey, please do!]
There are two factors one needs to take into account when considering the results of the survey. First, 90% of respondents live in Northern America (US and Canada), and 83% of respondents use fairly small amounts of vanilla, as they make less than five pounds of dough per week.
Of the North American respondents, 71% always use vanilla flavouring in their cookie dough, as opposed to only 36% of those from other parts of the world. At the other end of the spectrum, less than 1% of North Americans (7% of those elsewhere) never use vanilla flavouring in their dough. In most cases (61%), other flavours are added to the vanilla, though, in instances of mixing flavours, vanilla is the dominant flavour most (64%) of the time.
As far as forms of vanilla, most respondents (69%) use extract, followed by paste in distant second place (19%). The most quoted reasons for using one's preferred form of flavouring are: (1) it is easiest to find in local shops (34%); (2) it tastes best (34%); and (3) it tastes most like vanilla (24%), with factors like expense and flavoring intensity mattering far less. The most popular brand is Nielsen-Massey (28%), a natural flavouring, followed by McCormick (16%), and various private label/store brands (14%). About half of respondents are using Madagascar vanilla; another 39% don’t know the origin; and 6% use Mexican vanilla.
It would seem that customers are not very particular about which brand or type of vanilla is used in their cookies, as 92% of respondents who sell cookies say their customers never or rarely ask about it. Nor do interviewees seem to see a large need or opportunity to promote what they use. Of those selling cookies, only about 25% say they sometimes or regularly use their choice of vanilla as a selling tool.
Please tell us more about the vanilla forms and brands that you use (and where you live) in the comments below and in our survey. Julia and I are also especially interested to hear about any experiences with vanilla emulsions, and how they stack up against extracts and other forms, since they were not tested here. Thank you!
Liesbet Schietecatte, born in Belgium but permanently living in South Africa since 2005, accidentally found her way into cookie decorating in 2012. Grabbing moments in between her career as an archaeologist and being a mommy and a wife, Liesbet bakes Belgian biscuits like speculoos in the tradition of her grandmother’s family who were bakers for several generations, but she gets the most creative satisfaction from decorating with royal icing. She bakes and decorates for occasional orders and at times for a crafters' market, but mostly for the enjoyment and challenge of trying out new things. To honour her family's baking legacy, Liesbet uses the family name to give a home to her baking pictures on Facebook: Stock’s – Belgian Artisan Bakes.
Photo credit: Liesbet Schietecatte
Note: Toolbox Talk is a bimonthly Cookie Connection blog feature written by Liesbet Schietecatte that explores similarities and differences in cookie tools and ingredients from all over the world. Its content expresses the views of the author and not necessarily those of this site, its owners, its administrators, or its employees. Catch up on all of Liesbet's past Cookie Connection posts here.