Not so ordinary vanilla
December 28, 2020 1:38 PM   Subscribe

 
I always bought real vanilla because I assumed it was better, but this article from America's Test Kitchen convinced me to go for the 99 cent imitation vanilla, which has the added bonus of keeping me from ever skimping on it. This post affirms that decision.
posted by metasarah at 2:02 PM on December 28, 2020 [14 favorites]


Was coming here to say what metasarah said. Now I will read the article, thank you!
posted by jessamyn at 2:10 PM on December 28, 2020


In 2017 Madagascar was hit by cyclone Enawo and then (after the articles above were written) a second cyclone and flood in January 2020.
The first cyclone pushed prices up to the point where farmers had to guard their crop against vanilla thieves 24 hours a day.

The 2020 issues seems to have wiped out this year's production completely. Im not sure how long it will take them to recover, but at worst it takes three to four years for a new plant to produce vanilla pods.
posted by Lanark at 2:11 PM on December 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


If you can find and compare a good vanilla pod with the faux vanilla extract it is a night and day difference.
The problem I can see with those Test Kitchen results is that the lack of supply has created a huge problem with counterfeit or massively adulterated vanilla extract. So they are probably comparing two synthesized versions. In which case, yes just buy the cheap one.
posted by Lanark at 2:22 PM on December 28, 2020 [10 favorites]


I once bought online an entire packet of real, 8" long vanilla beans a few years ago, but they seemed lackluster compared to the $10 specialty food store vanilla beans that are sold in glass jars/tubes; while the online beans were more fresh and moist looking than store-bought beans, they seemed (somewhat?) less flavorful and definitely with some slight woody off-flavor. So then I figured that just because the name says Madagascar doesn't mean you get a well-sourced, high quality ingredient, and this piece about farming practices and industry corruption confirms my experience.

Now beans are too expensive for my budget, so I'm quite happy to use supermarket artificial extract or vanilla paste. On the other hand, I slightly disagree with the American's Test Kitchen because they didn't include actual beans with seeds in their comparison. That's a huge bias. I still think good quality real vanilla beans do taste different, they have a roundedness like comparing a real strawberry vs synthetic strawberry flavor: both have their place but for culinary purposes they're not equivalent.
posted by polymodus at 2:28 PM on December 28, 2020 [4 favorites]


A vanilla pod can be split lengthwise and added to sugar, to infuse that vanilla goodness into the sugar. Likewise, the seeds can be scraped out into madalenes, ice cream, creme brulee, and other dessert recipes. Imitation extract is not always a substitute.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 2:31 PM on December 28, 2020 [3 favorites]


Just search my email receipts out of curiosity, the beans I got was 10 beans for $10.99, $1.50 shipping handling. Not sure if they were on sale at the time, but the same web store is currently selling them for $8.95/bean.
posted by polymodus at 2:51 PM on December 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


A bunch of years ago I attended a seminar on vanilla aimed at bartenders (remember those?) which provided some of this history. However this article doesn't talk about how in post-WWII America, now cheap vanilla flavoring was added to dozens of different foods, typically ones we think of a 'convenience' or 'junk.' This sudden influx of what had previously been an exotic taste into many quotidian items devalued the gustatory experience. And so, according to the seminar presenters, it's why today we now commonly say a thing is 'vanilla' to imply it's nothing special.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 2:55 PM on December 28, 2020 [5 favorites]




It's not exactly a dissent, and I've read that article. The pastry and dessert books I've read typically say that cooked vanilla flavor dies away so it's more important to save your expensive beans for uncooked/unbaked goods, e.g. added at the end of a custard. Which is what the seriouseats piece also proves. It's the same with types of butter; the nuanced flavors of fancy/European/organic butter vs cheap supermarket butter is said to go to waste in cooked and baked foods, better to save it for applications in dishes where you can actually taste the difference.
posted by polymodus at 4:09 PM on December 28, 2020 [9 favorites]


How can they mention synthetic vanilla without mentioning castoreum?

That said, it was easier to prefer real vanilla over beaver butt juice before I knew about the current work conditions in Madagascar.
posted by johnofjack at 5:18 PM on December 28, 2020 [5 favorites]


I just spent $25 for a little bottle of pure vanilla extract at my local supermarket - the most expensive item in my cart. I thought about getting the fake stuff, but I know my wife is making nice baked goods and figured it may be worth it. Plus the imitation variety was sold out, I assume because everyone else said fuck that noise.
posted by schoolgirl report at 6:46 PM on December 28, 2020


I was today days old when I learned that vanilla is from orchids.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:29 PM on December 28, 2020 [2 favorites]


From tubs of beans to tubes of beans, no bean vessel must go unoverthinked!
posted by oulipian at 9:07 PM on December 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


My own experimentation indicates can't really tell the difference between fake and real extract in the final product. So I have no compunction about going fake. They definitely taste different straight from the bottle, both equally nasty and unpalatable that way, though there can be all kinds of reasons to account for that difference. Some fake stuff isn't alcohol based, too. The chemistry behind it all is baffling to me.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:46 PM on December 28, 2020


I listened to Sarah Lohman's book Eight Flavors (mentioned in the 2nd link) last year, and there's a chapter on vanilla, so I knew the Albius story.
I also learned and forgot what polymodus mentioned- use the cheap stuff for baking, save the good stuff for unbaked.
But read about the other seven flavors, too.
posted by MtDewd at 4:59 AM on December 29, 2020 [3 favorites]


Now beans are too expensive for my budget, so I'm quite happy to use supermarket artificial extract or vanilla paste. On the other hand, I slightly disagree with the American's Test Kitchen because they didn't include actual beans with seeds in their comparison. That's a huge bias. I still think good quality real vanilla beans do taste different, they have a roundedness like comparing a real strawberry vs synthetic strawberry flavor: both have their place but for culinary purposes they're not equivalent.

Vanilla beans suffer from some of the worst economies-of-scale I have encountered. If you buy 1 bean, it's like $9. A little jar with 3 might set you back $20. A dozen can be anywhere from $40 to $100. But if you buy those suckers by the pound, it works out to a per-bean price that's actually pretty reasonable. (The last time I was pricing this, it was well under $1 a bean) The problem is that a pound of vanilla beans is hundreds of dollars, (which most of us can't swing for a luxury like vanilla) because it's a totally ridiculous number of beans, and they have a finite shelf life because the flavor compounds break down in a year or so.

Which is why I have two strong words for you, fellow enthusiasts: vanilla collective. Find 8 like-minded friends, split the price of a giant bag of beans, and bask in the splendor of actual vanilla flavor in everything you eat. Just be mindful of where you store them: they don't like heat or humidity, and if you store them under the counter your cat might spend three days in a hallucinatory fugue wandering around the kitchen bumping into things.
posted by Mayor West at 5:58 AM on December 29, 2020 [16 favorites]


Absolutely fascinating thank you. I went looking for fair trade Vanilla and found this very interesting article about how an alternative supply from Uganda could improve things for the farmers.
https://www.fairtrade.net/news/anything-but-plain-exploring-sustainable-vanilla-prices-to-achieve-a-living-income-for-farmers
posted by tardigrade at 9:47 AM on December 29, 2020 [3 favorites]


Very interesting! I learnt a lot. Including that I should probably look for fairtrade vanilla.
I never use the extract, always the beans. And then when I've scraped the pod, I put the remainder in a container filled with sugar: that sugar will become vanilla-sugar over time.
posted by mumimor at 10:01 AM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]


Mayor West - please add me to your vanilla collective list
posted by ananci at 12:19 PM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]


I would absolutely believe that all of the manufactured extracts are indistinguishable in a baked good like a cake or cookie. However, I recently made chocolate chip cookies with not only real, but double-strength, home-made vanilla from beans.

The baked cookies were far superior to any other batch I've made despite using the same recipe as ever, otherwise. But THE DOUGH, MY GOD, THE DOUGH.

Also every recipe I've ever seen asks for about 75% as much vanilla as it actually needs (possibly because it is a scarce and pricey ingredient and they are loath to recommend more?) Once I learned to just about double the vanilla while baking my bakes improved substantially.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:34 PM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]


an alternative supply from Uganda could improve things
ndali vanilla is a great Organic and Fairtrade brand from Uganda if you can find it in stock anywhere.
posted by Lanark at 3:22 PM on December 30, 2020


What I've been told about vanilla is that because people see it as "artificial vs natural" and not about gradations within natural vanilla, the market for low end vanilla has exploded, yet it's hard for high end producers to capture the premium for high quality goods.
posted by phoenixy at 2:28 AM on December 31, 2020


TIL: We've been getting real vanilla extract direct from Mexico where it is pretty cheap (like $20 a litre or less) but apparently at least some of it is "vanilla" and comes from the Tonga Tree instead of vanilla beans. Something I'll have to watch for. In the before times we'd get a a couple litres every spring via returning snow birds; might have to shop online this summer.

Can anyone speak to the relative quality of Mexican vs Madagascar vanilla?

Vanilla beans suffer from some of the worst economies-of-scale I have encountered. If you buy 1 bean, it's like $9. A little jar with 3 might set you back $20. A dozen can be anywhere from $40 to $100. But if you buy those suckers by the pound, it works out to a per-bean price that's actually pretty reasonable.

That's not much off the norm on a cost basis rather than unit basis for most commodities. EG: Rice is like $5 a KG if you are buying a pound at a time; it's like $0.25/kg if you are buying a metric ton at a time. If you can get 25 people together you can each get 2-50lb/20kg bags for about $10 per person.

The difference is obviously you can carry a pound of beans in your pocket on the bus and you need a one ton truck to pickup the rice.
posted by Mitheral at 8:05 AM on December 31, 2020


The problem I can see with those Test Kitchen results is that the lack of supply has created a huge problem with counterfeit or massively adulterated vanilla extract. So they are probably comparing two synthesized versions. In which case, yes just buy the cheap one.

The editors of ATK/Cook's Illustrated have repeated this taste test multiple times over the past twenty-five years (I have the 1995 and 2003 issues of the magazine in front of me for comparison). Are you asserting that counterfeit and "massively adulterated" extract has been the norm in the US for that long? Before you answer, note that the test includes extract that they make themselves in their test kitchen.
posted by bcwinters at 8:31 PM on January 2


Vanilla beans suffer from some of the worst economies-of-scale I have encountered.

I think that may be a tell-sign of a low quality producer, if they don't expect to get any repeat sales it makes sense to encourage bulk buying. It's not like vanilla has heavy postage costs.
posted by Lanark at 11:54 AM on January 16


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