Vanilla means “black flower” in Nahuatl and it is one of the most expensive spices in the world, only saffron is more expensive. Here we explain the differences between vanilla extract and vanilla essence.
Vanilla is one of the most famous, valued and used spices in the world. However, before using it in the kitchen, it is normal to confuse two of its forms or be unsure of their differences: vanilla essence and extract.
It is interesting and useful to know the properties of the two forms. In this way, you are well prepared to choose the most suitable and to use the best product for the respective recipe at any time.
Vanilla essence and extract: the most important thing about this spice
Vanilla is one of the most widely used spices in the world. It has around 200 volatile compounds that give it a wide variety of flavor profiles. These vary depending on the variety or type of cultivation.
The natural dosage form is the fruit of the plant in the form of a pod, which is rare and expensive. This is why the industry has responded to the interest in developing a cheaper and easier to obtain version: artificial vanilla or essences.
The first people to grow vanilla were the Totonaks in Mexico, for whom it was a cultural symbol. They sent the vanilla to the Aztecs, which they used to flavor chocolate drinks.
Nowadays we also add them to milk preparations such as yoghurt or ice cream and use them as a flavoring in many finished products.
How is vanilla made?
Real vanilla comes from the flower of an orchid: the vanilla planifolia . It is native to Central America, from where it spread to Europe. The French later introduced them to the African islands in the Indian Ocean: Madagascar, Réunion and Comoros, which are the main suppliers of this spice today.
Its pod-shaped fruit is harvested between 6 and 9 months after pollination. It should measure about 8 inches. Inside are thousands of seeds surrounded by nutrients: sugars, fats, amino acids, and phenols.
These are harvested when they are still green. In order to get the pod, which we can later purchase or process, a ripening process is necessary, which consists of 3 phases:
- In a first stage, the harvest workers expose them to high temperatures through the heat of the sun, immersion in boiling water or steam.
- Then spread them out in the sun and protect them with a cloth for a few days. The heat evaporates some of the moisture from the pod and inhibits microbial growth.
- In the third step, the harvest workers straighten and smooth them by hand and let them dry for a few weeks. This is followed by a storage period during which it acquires a more pronounced taste and aroma. In Madagascar, for example, this takes 40 days, whereas in Mexico it takes a few months.
How is vanilla extract obtained?
In order to obtain vanilla extract, the manufacturers use the original fruit of the plant as a starting point. They soak the pods in a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water. In this way, all the compounds and flavors of the fruit pass into the liquid. Vanillin is one of the strongest flavors and aromas.
It is a pure product, using only the fluids necessary to extract the active ingredients from the original fruit. As it ripens, it develops a more complex and stronger taste.
There are specific regulations that allow the quality control of the vanilla extract. For example, in the United States, it must contain at least 35% alcohol and about 400 grams of vanilla seeds per 4 liters.
In addition , the possibility of adding additives such as sugar, dextrose or glycerine is regulated. Only products manufactured in accordance with these regulations may bear the name vanilla extract on their label.
How is vanilla essence made?
Vanilla essence is made synthetically and is a product that mimics the aroma and taste of the fruit, but does not come directly from it.
Vanillin is the main component of the aroma of the pods. In the synthetic production, other substances such as pine bark, clove oil, lignin or rice bran are used. Manufacturers also use additives such as water, ethanol, emulsifiers and chemical extracts.
Vanilla essence and extract: what are the main differences?
At first glance , it’s difficult to distinguish between the two types and to know which of them is better to use for each recipe. However, their origin, their possible uses and their final price are quite different.
Obtaining vanilla the traditional way is a laborious process. The harvesters hand pollinate each flower and allow the pods to harden and rest. This process can take weeks to months.
In addition, there are only a few regions for the cultivation and production of vanilla. These two reasons explain the high price of natural vanilla extract and vanilla pods. The consequence is that much of the vanilla we consume around the world today is synthetic.
As we saw when explaining the manufacturing process, the process for obtaining vanilla essence and vanilla extract is very different. While one is a natural derivative, the other is a synthetic imitation of its main component.
Manufacturers use both forms to make food, but these can change significantly due to the difference in price and quality. The food industry uses vanilla essence in the production of chocolates, candy, cookies and muesli.
However, when it comes to getting higher quality products or those in which vanilla is one of the main ingredients, it is better to resort to vanilla extract. In the USA, manufacturers of ice cream or yogurt must use natural extracts in their production, otherwise they are not allowed to use the term “vanilla” on their products.
Vanilla essence and extract in gastronomy
There are obvious differences between the two products. What sets them apart is the higher quality, taste and aroma of the extract compared to the essence. For this reason, it is usually best to use the extract with small amounts.
There are also other forms of this valuable spice in the kitchen. Both vanilla essence and vanilla extract can be replaced with the pulp of the pod or with pure vanilla powder.
Given the high cost of the extract, and because it may be difficult to find in the market, you can make it at home from pods and alcohol.
Although vanilla is mainly used in sweet recipes and preparations, it is never too late to experiment in the kitchen and try to use this fine spice in savory dishes and combine it with meat or fish, for example.