Vanilla extract is one of those things that can be over looked in a recipe. It’s so casual to “add a 1/2 tsp vanilla” or “take off the heat and stir in vanilla.” But why must we take it off the heat? And why do we add vanilla extract in the first place? Vanilla is one of those ingredients that seems to enhance other ingredients when used in, say, a cookie recipe. It seems to make all the other ingredients taste better, kinda like salt in a cookie recipe, but in a sweet, aromatic and subtle way.
Vanilla extract is also a really comforting smell and flavor in baked goods, and tastes divine in whipped cream, egg dishes (bread pudding) vanilla cakes, cookies and cupcakes. I made a batch of sugar cookies this past Christmas that were absolutely divine, and I believe it was because of the good quality vanilla I used. The flavor and smell of them were deep, floral, and rich. Not fake or dissipating at all like the fake stuff can be.
So why do we add in vanilla at the end or after the food is removed from the heat? Vanilla is preserved in alcohol to become an extract. Alcohol evaporates during cooking, taking the flavor compounds of vanilla with it. So if you are making a caramel sauce, remove it from the heat before you add the vanilla to make sure it doesn’t get over cooked and evaporate all that great flavor. Cookies, cakes and other baked goods usually only reach an internal temperature of around 210 degrees F (cookies might get a bit hotter) but vanilla starts to evaporate at around 280-300 degrees F (America’s Test Kitchen). However, it is best to add vanilla at the end of a recipe, since it is an alcohol extract, being exposed to air will decrease the flavor over time. You want that goodness as fresh as possible!
More importantly, why do we use Imitation Vanilla when we could so easily be using the real deal? Real vanilla is a little more expensive, maybe 10 dollars for a bottle over the 2.50 or so for the fake stuff, but the flavor impact is huge. Think of it like buying a nice bottle of gin. You don’t really have a gin martini everyday, right? (If you do, I want to be your friend.) But you might have one once a week or twice a month if you are REALLY an enthusiast. So nice baking ingredients are kinda the same… you don’t use it everyday, but it makes an enormous difference to the final product.
What exactly is Imitation Vanilla Extract? It is, truly, a bi-product of the wood pulp industry. (source)
Make your own vanilla extract and never use imitation again.
Take 5-7 whole vanilla beans (depending on size/length/variety), split lengthwise and add to 8 ounces of 35%+ alcohol (70+ proof). Any type of alcohol can be used, but I used bottom shelf Vodka because I didn’t want any other flavors to interfere with the vanilla. Bourbon, rum and brandy are all excellent ideas too.
After 8 weeks the extract is ready to enjoy. Make this now, and it’s ready with plenty of time for next Thanksgiving and Christmas baking, or this summers pie making frenzy. Be sure to clearly mark when you made it, and when it’s ready to use! (This one is from a batch I made quit awhile ago.)
As you use it, occasionally add a little more alcohol to the beans. You may want to add another vanilla bean after 6 months to a year. I use this in equal amount to what is called for in a recipe, teaspoon for teaspoon. I do think my vanilla tastes richer, and I see nothing wrong with a little extra sumptin’ sumptin’.
- Jar or Bottle
- 7 Vanilla Beans (I like Beanilla vanilla beans)
- 1 cup vodka (or you can also use bourbon, rum or brandy)
- Use a knife to split the bean in half, leave about ½ inch at each end intact.
- Put your vanilla beans in your glass bottle or jar and cover with vodka.
- Close jar or bottle and store in a cool, dry place for at least 8 weeks. Give the bottle a shake every week or so.
(I absolutely love to read about food, in a scientific, cultural and historical way. If you are interested, here’s a couple books and cookbooks that celebrate vanilla.)
Looking for bottles or jars? Try these sites!