Where does vanilla extract come from?

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Whole vanilla pods are splurge, so you’ll want to choose the plumpest and freshest available. Look for whole beans that are fatty, shiny, and moist. While Madagascar produces about half of the world’s harvest, vanilla also comes from Mexico, French Polynesia, Uganda, China and Indonesia, among other countries, and will have different flavor profiles depending on the place of origin. Our test kitchen loves products that are incredibly fragrant and responsibly harvested from Heilala Vanilla, who come from the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific.

But why is vanilla such a valuable addition? What does he bring to the table? The comforting flavors of vanilla (toasted, musky, floral or even smoky and earthy) enhance almost any dessert, making it endlessly versatile. Its caramelized richness makes the warm and deep flavors – coffee, chocolate, hazelnut, brown butter and cinnamon – more comfortable and lively flavors, such as citrus, hibiscus, rosemary and berries, sharper and more pronounced.

I have a vanilla bean. Now what do I do?

To access the seeds of the bean, use a paring knife to slit the entire length of the pod, leaving the bottom intact. Open the sides like shutters to expose the grainy interior. Pressing gently, slide the flat side of the knife along the pod, collecting the seeds as you go. Then you are ready to drop it into any treat you make.

To store unused vanilla pods, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap or Reusable Bee’s Wrap, then place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to six months.

Where does vanilla extract come from?

Vanilla extract – the kind that explicitly says “pure vanilla extract” on its label – is made by soaking vanilla beans in an alcohol solution to “extract” (get it?) All of their flavor compounds. According to the FDA, the vanilla extract must contain at least 35% alcohol with a minimum of 100 grams of vanilla pods per liter. When buying a high-quality extract, check the ingredients: it should only list vanilla pods, alcohol, and water, with no additives like sugar or artificial colors or flavors.

Or, make your own extract at home with vanilla beans and high-strength alcohol like bourbon, vodka, or rum. You can store the extract, whether store bought or homemade, in a cool, dark place almost indefinitely.

Where does the imitation of vanilla come from?

Ninety-nine percent of the world’s vanilla extract is a false imitation of vanilla which is not a product of the plant itself. Instead, it’s flavored mostly with synthetic vanillin (a lab-produced version of the same chemical compound that occurs naturally in real vanilla). Typically labeled as “vanilla essence,” this artificial vanilla is typically derived from, uh, less than organic material (like petroleum). While it mimics the scent of vanilla, many would say it fails to capture all of the complex floral and woody notes that result from the myriad of other flavor compounds in real vanilla.

That’s not to say that imitation of vanilla doesn’t make sense! It’s the most economical choice, and you might not even be able to spot it as an impostor in desserts filled with many other tasty ingredients or in baked goods that spend a lot of time in the oven. Some classic desserts such as Confetti Cake and Dunkaroos rely on imitation vanilla for their great vanilla flavor. The real extract cannot do the same job!

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