Vanilla questions

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A few readers have recently written about their new vanilla extract smelling a bit harsh.

J writes:

I’m in the third week of my first extract experiment, and it smells sort of . . . plastic-y.
Is something wrong? Is it just the type of bean I’m using? I sterilized my jar and lid in advance…

C writes:

I put the beans in my food processor instead of cutting them by hand, and they were in .5-1″ damaged chunks when I started macerating them in the alcohol. I’d think that was good, for maximal surface area, but it’s been about six weeks and while the extract is very dark it tastes harsh. Do you think it was the food processor step?

In both cases, it’s still a bit early in the process. Give vanilla extract a few months to age before judging the aroma. Extract has an intense alcohol aroma when new; maybe that’s the chemical or plastic smell. Commercial manufacturers cut extract with something sweet (sugar, corn syrup) to remove the alcohol nose. Given time, your extract will age and mellow naturally without the need for sweeteners.

That said, if you notice quickly growing mold, toss it without opening! It’s not worth the risk. But at 40% alcohol, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Do you use ground vanilla (or vanilla powder)? How do you use it?

It’s often said that ground vanilla or vanilla powder is good for baking. As I tried to develop a vanilla-cardamom cake, I realized that I really don’t like ground vanilla…

  1. There’s no way to know what quality of vanilla bean is used to make ground vanilla. Even “grade A” seems to encompass an increasingly wide range of qualities.
  2. Vanilla pods are very fibrous. That’s why recipes call for extract, caviar, or steeped pods. I find that ground vanilla remains fibrous after cooking, often increasing in bulk, leaving unpleasing fiber chunks.
  3. Vanilla powder changes the texture, or crumb, of delicate desserts. The fibers can weigh down flour based desserts, creating an unpleasant mouth feel. According to my taste tester: “I bite down on juicy string bits, like orange juice pulp”. Not what you want in a delicate vanilla-cardamom cake.

How do you use it?

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“SD” at Chattacookery shares an experience adding more vodka to extracted vanilla beans:

…In my original post I noted that you can add second and third infusions of vodka to your extract until all the flavor is gone from the beans. I only recently used up my first bottle and I added extra vodka to it to see if the second infusion would take. It’s been over a month and the color is still quite weak. With a stronger initial infusion, like my newest batch, additional infusions might work better but I won’t be able to experiment with it for at least 6 months, possibly longer. But honestly, at a cost of 14 cents a bean I would rather just buy more beans and start a new batch rather than try to revitalize the old.

Regarding the vodka, I wasn’t sure which way to go. Some people say use the cheapest you can find, others say you should go for something decent. I ended up getting a very cheap bottle and slightly better quality bottle and mixing them together, though I suspect it really doesn’t matter…

Emphasis mine.

Related
Extract alcohol trial results.

From the comments, “Eric” writes:
Thanks for your informative site. A few of your top vendors don’t seem to sell extract quality beans at least not by glancing at their website. Where do you typically buy your beans from if you’re making extract? Are you using grade A or grade B?

Thanks,
Eric

I use grade B whenever possible, but grade A work great too! I’ve even thought that using grade A beans gave more depth and flavor to the extract, but not everyone agrees.

Extract alcohol experiment.
Photo: Tamami/Coco&Me.

Tamami at Coco&Me posted the results of her vanilla extract experiments using vodka, rum, and brandy:

I made 3 samples – with vodka, rum & brandy – & I can say that the best one was… drum-roll please… with Vodka!! Ta-da!

The clear vodka now coloured rich auburn brown, has the most heady scent of vanilla. Bliss. It’s a “happy-moment”. You know that the vanilla has been fully extracted. It has a slightly syrupy density, & when you shake the bottle then pour, you’d get loads of specks of vanilla beans. Gorgeous.

The other two, the rum & the brandy versions, well, forget ‘em really… The distinct flavour of the alcohol drowned the delicate vanilla scent. Quite disappointing & pointless.

You can read more about Tamami’s experiment with vanilla extract and various alcohols.

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It’s a common misconception that a layer of frost or fine crystals indicate a high quality vanilla bean.

In short, crystals suggest two things:
1. The vanilla beans have been exposed to air for some time.
2. The beans contain the chemical vanillin.

Crystals do not demonstrate:
1. Overall quality of the vanilla bean.
2. Potency of the bean (except in the most cursory way).
3. Acceptable or pleasing flavors.

Explanation
Vanilla beans develop a frost of small crystals (called givre in French) as the vanillin inside the bean migrates to the surface while the beans dry. Givre does not develop on vacuum packed beans because there is no gas exchange in the bean. Givre thus is an indicator that the vanilla beans have been exposed to gas exchange for an extended period — recently cured beans don’t have crystals no matter how high the vanillin levels. Many vanilla beans will grow crystals if left loosely packaged.

Frost also indicates the presence of vanillin. This was an important quality indicator in the 1900s when the world was rife with vanilla bean scams. Vanillin content is the most simplistic, cursory indicator of vanilla bean quality. It does not indicate overall quality or condition of the vanilla bean, nor its flavor or “freshness”. Furthermore, great vanilla beans might not grow crystals at all:

The absence of the crystalline coating on the vanilla beans seems to be no proof of inferiority, for Henri Lecomte affirms that it is [sometimes] absent in the best Mexican bean” (B. Sc. Pharm., 1901).

Related
Frosted vanilla bean gallery.

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“A” writes: Quick question: what can I do with stale vanilla beans?

First, are they really stale?

  1. Make Extract — extract grade beans almost never go stale, so there should be no problem using stale beans in vanilla extract.
  2. Make vanilla sugar — chop stale vanilla beans and combine with sugar to make vanilla sugar.
  3. Make ground vanilla — pulverize stale vanilla beans in a coffee grinder to make vanilla powder.

Related
Frequently asked vanilla questions.
Vanilla information.
Vanilla extract tutorial and recipe.

Anonymous asks: What is the alcohol content of vanilla extract? How much alcohol is in extract?

Vanilla extract contains 35% alcohol, by US FDA regulations.

For more vanilla facts, check out the Vanilla Info page, or learn how to make your own Vanilla Extract.

Send your vanilla questions using the contact form.

“G” writes: Similar recipes, such as creme brulee, often call for different vanilla products, such as the vanilla bean, vanilla extract, ground vanilla, or vanilla powder. What is ground vanilla versus vanilla powder? Are there conversion equivalents for cooking purposes?

I believe that vanilla powder and ground vanilla are the same thing. I compiled this equivalency table using several sources, primarily the fantastic Cook’s Thesaurus:

Vanilla product equivalency chart

Amount Vanilla product
1 inch bean (*1)
1 teaspoon extract (*2)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon powder/ground (*3)
1 teaspoon vanilla paste (*4)

While many will say there’s no such thing as too much vanilla, my thick vanilla bean extracts can easily overwhelm a dish and turn it vanilla-disgusting. Use homemade extract with care if you beef up the number of beans, like me.
———-
*Notes…

*1 Vanilla bean - The Cook’s Thesaurus suggests using more than 1″ of vanilla bean if it’s not especially potent or fresh. Simmer the vanilla in a liquid used in the recipe to extract the flavor.

*2 Vanilla extract - The FDA requires about 6 vanilla beans (7 inch) per cup alcohol, or 42 inches of bean per 48 teaspoons. Just less than one inch (7/8) per teaspoon extract.

*3 Vanilla powder - The Cook’s Thesaurus is a bit hazy about whether to use 1/2 or 1 teaspoon ground vanilla, probably because vanilla powders from various sources are so different. Ground vanilla could be crusty old beans or grade A beauties, who knows.

A simple experiment provides some helpful info: an 8 inch vanilla bean reduced to about 2 teaspoons of pulver in a coffee grinder. That’s a bit less than 1/4 teaspoon powder per inch of bean– certainly closer to 1/2 teaspoon ground vanilla than 1 teaspoon.

The bean I used was pretty dry. A moist bean would probably yield slightly more powder, but I couldn’t get one to grind in my coffee grinder. In this picture it looks like Vanilla-Trade.com uses an industrial chipper-shredder to make vanilla powder.

*4 Vanilla paste - “Vanilla paste” is a new, unregulated product that’s trendy at the moment. It aims to give the appearance of cooking with vanilla beans (black caviar specks), without the “hassle” of owning real beans (convenient portions). There’s really no way to know what you’re getting, but follow the directions — or hope that it’s roughly equal to extract in potency.

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“Cheryl” writes: what is the shelf life of vanilla extract? How long does vanilla extract last, and when does vanilla extract expire?

Like fine wine, real vanilla extract will mature with age and continue to improve over time. Some say indefinitely. In general, because it is a form of liqueur, vanilla extract should last “forever”.

Related
Frequently asked vanilla questions.
Vanilla information.
Vanilla extract tutorial and recipe.

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