Very Vanilla

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Have you ever watched a cooking show where they stress the importance of using good vanilla? Up until recently I never gave much attention to the type of vanilla I was using.  I typically used generic imitation vanilla. However, I started to wonder if it would actually make a noticeable difference if I used better vanilla extract or even real vanilla beans.

First, I wanted to do some research  on vanilla because after all it’s not an inexpensive experiment to try out a bunch of different vanillas. I wanted to make sure that good vanilla could actually improve a dish. I started my research by watching an episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats on the Food Network.  The episode I watched was all about vanilla: the history, how it grows, variations and recipes.  I took away from it several things, one of them being that different vanillas offer different flavor profiles. 

Often, we label the person who goes into an ice cream shop and orders vanilla from the hundred-plus flavor board as boring. That is because we usually associate vanilla with plainness. It is an expected flavor that we have become accustomed to all of our lives. Once we develop more sophisticated palates vanilla becomes too mundane, for most people.

Even though we might not think of vanilla as something that exciting, it actually is an exotic, tropical flavor that comes in an abundance of varieties. Vanilla is grown commercially in the tropics and sub tropics around the world. Wild vanilla plants have even been found in the southern most part of Florida, but the most traditional places are Tahiti, Mexico, and Madagascar.

Tahitian vanilla is considered highly desirable by most chefs.  It offers an intense vanilla flavor and fragrance with undertones of chocolate, licorice, and caramel.

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Mexican vanilla beans tend to be larger and very oily.  It is difficult to get a supply of good quality beans.  You should be cautious about buying vanilla extracts processed in Mexico because they are oftentimes mixed with a similar bean (Tonka bean), which is toxic.

In the United States we get the majority of our vanilla from Madagascar.  The beans are similar to those harvested in Central America because they were transferred there when Madagascar was colonized. They are sometimes referred to as Bourbon vanilla beans because the island was once called the Isle of Bourbon.

If vanilla grows all over the world, however, why is it so expensive? The process of harvesting one vanilla plant is extremely labor intensive. Out of the two thousand orchid varieties only one of them produces food, vanilla.  To add to the rarity there is only one day out of the year that this variety of orchid can be pollinated.  After the plant has been pollinated it takes six weeks to grow the pod, then an additional nine months for the pod to mature.

At this point, the pods are still green and have no culinary use.  They still need to be cured, a process that transforms them into their familiar shriveled, brown form. Curing vanilla beans is a tedious, involved process that takes several weeks of alternating between water baths, drying (in the sun), and sweating.

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After this process, how could one vanilla be vastly different from another? How could we say one vanilla extract is better than another? Good vanilla extract is characterized by how much of actual vanilla is in the product.  Like most food products, generally speaking, the simpler the ingredient list the better. If you are looking for high quality pure vanilla extracts they will consist of only the following ingredients: alcohol, water and vanilla beans.  Some real vanilla extracts, however, might contain vanilla beans but they can be enhanced with caramel colorings and corn sweeteners. Natural vanilla extracts do not have an alcoholic base, so they lack an intense vanilla flavor.

Vanillin is the crystallized part of the vanilla pod that forms on the outside of the vanilla beans. This gives vanilla its distinct flavor.  Wood actually has a fair amount of vanillin, which contributes to the favorable taste in many wines and alcoholic beverages; since many of these beverages ferment in wooden barrels they absorb some of the vanillin from the wood.

Imitation vanilla extract, what we are accustomed to finding in most grocery stores, is so inexpensive compared to good vanilla because it is actually made from wood pulp or by-products of the coal mining industry.  It does not come from a vanilla bean. But don’t worry!  You don’t have to throw away all the vanilla extract in your cabinets. Even Alton Brown admits to using it in his baked goods. When vanilla is not the central flavor in your baked goods, there is no harm in using it’s foe cousin.

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Where should you buy vanilla beans? Don’t buy vanilla beans at the grocery store because they are more expensive, not to mention that you don’t know how long they have been in their packages.  Overtime, vanilla can become brittle (it should still be soft and pliable), which makes it difficult to remove the pulp.  It is almost impossible to tell through a package.  Alton Brown recommends buying it online.  At first I thought it was a little strange to buy food online, but I came across this website and decided to give it a try.  My vanilla beans arrived two days later in a vacuumed sealed packaged.  When I took them out, they were soft and very fragrant. I would highly recommend this source for buying vanilla beans.

If you buy more vanilla beans than you plan on using you should store them in plastic bags in airtight containers in a cool, dark place for the optimum life span. If you do this they should last for up to a year.

After receiving these vanilla beans, I was so excited to start cooking with them.  At one point I thought I would try and make my own vanilla extract; however, after watching the episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown convinced me otherwise.  He said it is not worth it because it takes a lot of vanilla beans, which is very expensive not to mention that it only yields a very small concentrated amount.  Because the difference between homemade vanilla and good store bought vanilla extract would be hardly noticeable, I would also advise against it.

So after learning all of this, I decided to do a little experimenting.  To really decide what was the best option I have to test it out. I wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of vanilla extract (not imitation) with real vanilla beans.  While vanilla extract comes directly from vanilla beans, I wanted to see how it compared to the real deal. Was it really worth all the hype?

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I tested my vanillas using Alton Brown’s recipe for crème brulee.  For the first batch I used the pulp of a vanilla bean and for the second batch I used vanilla extract. While they were cooking they each had distinctively different aromas. The first batch (vanilla bean) was purely vanilla and aromatic, while the second batch (extract) was less fragrant and slightly alcoholic smelling.

Both variations yielded delicious crème brulees that were unquestionably vanilla flavored.  I had my brothers, parents and grandparents try this dish and we were surprisingly split on which crème brulee was better. I enjoyed the one with real vanilla beans. It might have been a combination of my excitement to use them in a dish and imagination, but I could tell the difference. Tasting the two dishes side by side gave me an appreciation of the authentic taste of real vanilla. Although it is not as pronounced or dominant as the vanilla extract, it has a less generic taste.  My brothers enjoyed the crème brulee with the vanilla extract because it tasted more “vanilla-y” in their words.  It is the expected vanilla flavor we are so accustomed too.

You will have to try it out for yourself and see whether you prefer vanilla beans, real vanilla extract or imitation vanilla. Here is a recipe for crème brulee. I had never made crème brulee before and I was successful with this recipe; however, you cannot alter it or else they will not set.  The first time I tried it, I replaced the heavy cream with half and half in an attempt to lighten it.  I had seen recipes online, so I thought I would give it a try.  The result was soupy crème brulees that would not set after an hour in the oven or overnight in the refrigerator.

Crème brulee is by no means a light dessert, but go ahead and indulge in it. Save the egg whites for a light breakfast the next morning! Here is Alton Brown’s recipe.

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Alton Brown's Creme Brulee

Yields 8 servings

Ingredients

1 quart heavy cream *Do not substitute with other dairy products.

1 vanilla bean, split and scraped (or 2 Tablespoons of vanilla extract)

1 cup vanilla sugar (divided) *I used regular granulated sugar.

6 large egg yolks

2 quarts of hot water

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Place the cream, vanilla bean and its pulp  (or vanilla extract) into a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, cover and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean.

In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup sugar and the egg yolks until it is well-blended and just starts to lighten in color. Add the cream a little at a time, stirring continually. Pour the liquid into 6 (7 to 8-ounce) ramekins.

Place the ramekins into a large cake pan or roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake just until the creme brulee is set, but still trembling (when shook) in the center, approximately 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the roasting pan and refrigerate them for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.

Remove the creme brulee from the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes prior to browning the sugar on top. Divide the remaining 1/2 cup vanilla sugar equally among the 6 dishes and spread evenly on top. Using a torch (you can use one from a kitchen store or a blow torch from a hardware store), melt the sugar and form a crispy top. Allow the creme brulee to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.

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Sources:
"Good Eats." My Pod: Food Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. 
"Creme Brulee." Recipe: Alton Brown : Recipes : Food Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.
"Vanilla Beans, Extracts and Baking Products | Beanilla." Beanilla RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.
"A Brief History of Vanilla..." Earthy Delights. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.
"ServoLux B.V." History of Vanilla. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.