Vanilla 101: Do price, form matter?

Bill Daley, Chicago TribuneApril 10, 2013 

Q: Can you please tell me the difference between powdered vanilla and liquid vanilla: Is one stronger? Can you only use the powdered for cooking? I ruined a "no cook" icing recipe using the powdered form and have been afraid to use it ever since. Also are some liquid vanillas stronger than others? What about cheap ones verses more expensive ones in the grocery store? Lots of questions -- hope you are able to answer all 5 of them.
-- Emily Soltys, Severn, Md.

A: Your last question is the one I feel most confident answering off the cuff. When it comes to cheap versus expensive ingredients, like vanilla, you tend to get what you pay for. Imitation vanilla or poor-quality vanilla is no bargain, in my opinion. And that goes for all ingredients in cooking. You want the very best you can find and afford.

Now on to vanilla. The vanilla bean is the fruit of an orchid native to "tropical America," according to The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion. There are, as the Companion notes, three common types of vanilla beans: Bourbon-Madagascar from Madagascar, the African island nation; Mexican; and Tahitian. Like coffee, tea or wine, vanilla has a terroir, or sense of place, you can taste.

The most common form of vanilla, the Companion notes, is vanilla extract. That's made by macerating the bean in an alcohol-water solution to draw out the flavor. The extract then is aged.

Vanilla powder is made by grinding whole dried vanilla beans and, according to the Companion, "its flavor doesn't evaporate when heated as readily as that of vanilla extract, which makes it better suited for baked goods, custards, etc."

Craig Nielsen, chief executive officer at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in Waukegan, Ill., and Donald Schmidt, vice president of operations at Cook Flavoring Co. in Paso Robles, Calif., say vanilla powder can replace vanilla extract on a one-to-one ratio. That means 1 teaspoon of vanilla powder should do the job of 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, but Schmidt says you might want to fine-tune that ratio slightly to 1 1/4 teaspoon powder to 1 teaspoon extract. Experiment.

Schmidt also recommends using vanilla powder in making an angel food cake.

One other thing to consider: Powdered vanilla may not disperse quickly into other ingredients, leading to vanilla "lumps." Perhaps that was the problem with your icing recipe? Nielsen suggests dissolving the powder first in any liquid called for in the recipe.

As for your other questions, some liquid vanillas on the market are stronger than others. Nielsen and Schmidt note the United States government sets the standard for "pure vanilla extract," containing at least 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction. The extract must be 35 percent alcohol. Double-strength, also known as double-fold, vanilla extracts also are made and sold. Bottles are labeled as such and recipes would likely need adjusting to account for the greater punch.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service