Summary: There are over 20,000 types of orchid, but only one produces anything edible–the vanilla plant. “Vanilla extract” comes from macerating beans into an alcohol/water solution. “Imitation vanilla” comes from treated wood-pulp byproducts.
Details: Vanilla extract is the most common form of vanilla used today. Mexican, Tahitian, Indonesian and Bourbon vanilla are the main varieties. Bourbon vanilla does not contain bourbon — it is named for the period when the island of Reunion was ruled by the Bourbon kings of France. Vanilla extract is made by macerating/percolating chopped vanilla beans in ethyl alcohol and water for approximately 48 hours. The mixture is then aged for several months then filtered.
The FDA specifies that pure vanilla extract contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and a 35% alcohol/65% water mixture. The resulting amber liquid is clear and richly fragrant. There are double and triple strength vanilla extracts, as well as a vanilla essence — so strong that only a drop or two is needed. Imitation vanilla is composed of artificial flavorings (most of which are paper-industry by-products treated with chemicals) and it often has a harsh quality that leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Vanilla originated in Mexico, and it was once the producer of the finest vanilla, but almost all the extract from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean is now synthetic, and NOT pure vanilla extract.
Product packaging can be confusing: Natural vanillin is a substance intrinsic to the vanilla bean, but artificial vanillin is made from wood-pulp by-products. Vanilla flavoring is a blend of pure and imitation vanilla. Vanilla extract should be added to cooked mixtures after they have been briefly cooled so the flavor does not dissipate.
Season: available year-round
How to select: When choosing pure vanilla, check:
Color: Clear is pure, synthetic vanillin, and is also called crystal vanilla. A dark, murky color is also synthetic vanillin, probably ethyl vanillin derived from coal tar. The dark color may be due to a red dye that has been banned in the US or a caramel coloring. A true amber color is an indication of natural vanilla.
Alcohol Content: Synthetic products have either no alcohol or up to 2% alcohol. Some vanilla-vanillin blends may have 25% alcohol.
Price: Vanilla is extremely labor intensive to produce. If you paid $20.00 for a big bottle (even in Mexico), is not pure vanilla extract.
How to store: Extracts can be stored indefinitely in a sealed airtight container kept in a cool dark place. Do not refrigerate vanilla extract.
Matches well with: apples, apricots, chocolate, custards, fish, fruit, ice cream, plums, shellfish