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Vanilla bean with frost

Vanilla bean with frost

Happy Vanilla season! Winter is vanilla time, and I look forward to posting a few new reviews and notes over the coming cold months.

It seems homemade vanilla extract has a new fan. Regular reader G. writes:

In the newest issue of [Cook's Illustrated] magazine (Sept./Oct, 2009), at page 31, the following short article was featured.

From Cook’s Illustrated, A Better Brand of Vanilla Extract: Your Own, September 1, 2009.

Could our homemade vanilla extract beat out the store-bought brands? Most of vanilla’s flavor compounds are soluble in either water or alcohol, so the most shelf-stable form of vanilla is vanilla extract, produced by soaking vanilla beans in a solution of 65 percent water and at least 35 percent alcohol. We wondered if we could make our own vanilla extract by soaking a split vanilla bean in heated vodka (which would contribute very little of its own flavor). After testing several ratios of vanilla beans to vodka, we arrived at 1 bean per ¾ cup of vodka as the proportion most closely resembling the potency of our recommended store-bought brand, McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract. We then tested our homemade extract against this supermarket product in sugar cookies, crème brûlée, and vanilla buttercream frosting. In each case, our extract outperformed the commercial version, boasting cleaner, more intense vanilla flavor.

Cooks illustrated offers their own variation of a hot-soak recipe:

To make vanilla extract, split a fresh bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place the seeds and split pod in a 1-cup sealable container. Add ¾ cup hot vodka (we used Smirnoff—a premium brand is not necessary) and let the mixture cool to room temperature. Seal the container and store at room temperature for one week, shaking gently every day. Strain the extract, if desired, and store in a cool, dark place. The extract should keep indefinitely.

Hot extraction vs cold extraction is an intense debate in the vanilla extract world. Some feel hot extraction gets flavor components that stay in the beans without the heat to dislodge them. Others feel that natural, ‘cold-pressed’ vanilla extract is the most pure because even mild heat destroys some of the delicate aromatics in the beans.

Thanks G!

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cocome vanilla extractCooks Illustrated’s  first vanilla extract taste test had some interesting results, their tasters preferred imitation vanilla to the real thing. Now they’ve repeated the test, but this time real vanilla came out on top! They found that real vanilla really makes a difference:

If you’re only buying one bottle of vanilla for cooking, baking, and making cold and creamy desserts, our top choice is a real extract. If you only use vanilla for baking, we have to admit there’s not much difference between a well-made synthetic vanilla and the real thing. Speaking to pastry chefs, we learned that many buy an arsenal of vanilla extracts, using cheaper imitation for baking and pure for confections made with moderate or no heat, such as puddings, pastry cream, and buttercream frosting.

Vanilla beans on vineVilla Vanilla in Costa Rica has an updated website at Rainforestspices.com. Their Demeter certified organic vanilla beans are the longest vanilla beans in the world.

According to Samantha at Progressive Asia Group Sdn Bhd, Malaysia based vanilla group Rentak Timur Sdn Bhd cannot be contacted by telephone.

I’ve been trying to get more information about RTSB for you, unfortunately the phone number has been canceled.

As far as I can tell, Rentak Timur is out of business, and never really reached market volumes of vanilla beans.

Vietnam vanilla

This article from the Hanoi Times comes by way of this post in an Indonesian yahoo group (translator).

Vietnam succeeds in growing vanilla
Posted at 17h11, Day 22 February, 2008

Hanoi Times – Vanilla plants have been successfully test-grown in Thua Thien-Hue province’s mountainous district of A Luoi. The research was conducted out of the Center for Scientific Research and Agriculture-Forestry Technology Development of the College of Agriculture and Forestry under Hue University. Le Van An, head of Hue University’s International Cooperation Department, announced the results o­n February 13.

update: additional reference

Jack at The Organic Vanilla Bean Company writes in with this bit of info on Indonesia origin vanilla beans:

Your intro page states Indonesia is the 2nd largest producer. I’m not sure where this info came from, but one thing is for sure – probably about 50% of Indonesia’s production is 2nd quality beans smuggles in from PNG. Indonesian buyers make frequent trips to the bush farmers in PNG and buy their lower grade vanilla at very low prices (usually cheating on the weights, too). This vanilla is then smuggled across the PNG/Indonesia border and mixed with the local crop. I think that any tonnage figures you may have from Indonesia could be safely cut by 50% to get a more accurate actual production figure – however, the exact number is virtually impossible to verify.

…it is a practice we would like to eradicate, but because of the corrupt customs officials both side of the PNG/Indo border it will keep happening. It wouldn’t be so bad if the farmers received a fair price for the beans, but usually this doesn’t happen. Most of these farmers have no idea how to read a scale, and even if they could, the scales are fixed to under record. The Indos typically pay about 50% of the going price and discount if further by weight cheating or claiming the items are 2nd grade, when they are perfectly fine.

– Jack, The Organic Vanilla Bean Company, March 21, 2008.

A social factor to consider when choosing vanilla beans…

Indonesian Planifolia Indonesian Planifolia Vanilla Beans