Updated: Jan 4
Unknown origins: Vanilla
It's in our ice cream and our pastries and cakes. It's one of the most used baking ingredients: Vanilla. You may be shocked to hear that 99% of Vanilla flavored products don't contain a single drop of real Vanilla. So why is this? And how are we supposed to use this near-indispensable ingredient?
Vanilla's popularity and widespread use have a fascinating story held primarily by civilizations' conquering each other. Originally harvested by the Totonacs in Central America and the Caribbean, the Aztecs conquered these people and started using Vanilla. Later, the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and shipped them back to Europe, among other products unknown to Europe.
Hugh Morgan, an apothecary for Queen Elizabeth I, made vanilla-flavored sweetmeats. Yes, you read that correctly, sweet meat. But this isn't a steak flavored with vanilla; in England, sweet meat is something that is flavored heavily with sugar, such as candy or fruit. It wasn't until the 17th century that vanilla began to be used in Europe. Then in France, around the 18th century, vanilla began to be used in ice cream.
Then, in 1805 we saw vanilla recorded in its first cookbook, (it could be in older cookbooks, but we have yet to find it) Hannah Glasses The Art of Cookery. But even still, vanilla was still hard to come by; it took until 1841 when a young enslaved person named Edmond Abius found that he could manually pollinate Vanilla Orchids. Without Edmond, baking would be a completely different art.
What's so Special About Vanilla?
Despite hand-pollinating Vanilla Orchids, you'd be surprised by how little the world makes. Two thousand tons of Vanilla are produced yearly, weighing roughly six Boeing 747s. This may sound like a ton, but it is very little compared to how much Vanilla is used. To make matters harder, the actual flower of a vanilla plant is open for just 24 hours! Then there is the height; these pods, on the vine they grow on, can grow up to 300 feet tall. It's no surprise that Vanilla pods are the world's most expensive spice after saffron.
So, to take advantage of this demand for Vanilla, companies began making artificial Vanilla. This can be roughly 20 times cheaper to make… However, the quality is often so low compared to real Vanilla I refuse to use it or discuss this abomination further! Not all brands are as bad as some, but no artificial flavoring is a substitute for real Vanilla.
If we aren't using artificial Vanilla, what should you use in baking or cooking? I will always tell you to use real Vanilla pods, but I suggest using Vanilla paste since the price is through the roof for pods.
Traders Guide: Buying and Using Vanilla
Vanilla Paste and extract vary significantly in their makeup and flavor profiles. While Vanilla extract is made with profound amounts of alcohol to extract flavor, the Paste uses a sugary syrup often made from glucose to extract flavor. This Vanilla paste most closely has maple syrup's consistency and has a much stronger flavor than extract. First becoming popular in the 1990s, the Paste has small black specks of Vanilla suspended within its syrup.
One must be very careful when buying Vanilla paste, though. These tiny flecks could be actual Vanilla beans (exactly what we want) or ground Vanilla Bean pods.
Is there a time when we should use extract over Paste? If you visit various other blogs, you will see that they use a relatively simple rule of thumb. Use Paste when you will see the dots, such as in whip cream or ice cream, and use extract when you don't see them. I can't entirely agree with this practice.
Vanilla Paste has a much stronger flavor, and therefore we can use less of it. It also has a richer and deeper Vanilla taste profile. So, if we are flavoring something with Vanilla, I want to taste that Vanilla, even if it's just a hint of it. You could add more extract but save some money and just add Vanilla Paste.
Where can we buy this famed Vanilla Paste? I recommend Little Pod. It's a company based in the UK that focuses almost exclusively on a few products. What makes this product even more impressive is that 10% of all orders go to the growers. You'll have to pay a small extra fee to get it imported into the United States but take my word for it; this Vanilla paste is some of the highest quality I've worked with. It's even sold at premier high-end English department stores such as Selfridges; still not sold on buying Paste over Extract? The Paste actually costs less than the extract from Little Pod.
Want a paste without the extra charge from customs? I recommend this one here.
Now that you know how and where to buy the best Vanilla, how do you bake with it? Most recipes don't discern what kind of Vanilla to use. Here is a simple guide: One Vanilla pod equals one tablespoon of extract or one teaspoon of Paste. However, I'm a Vanilla snob; If a recipe calls for one teaspoon of extract, I simply use one teaspoon of Paste. If a recipe calls for Vanilla, I want to taste a hint of real Vanilla! But don't go overboard on it.
With that, I leave you with a closing thought. When baking, try using Vanilla paste. Whatever dish your making will instantly have a more robust flavor profile that you'll never want to ditch.
"The Flying Chef"