Vanilla Facts: Everything You Need to Know

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Learn the important facts about vanilla: how it's made, the best ways to store it and whether or not you can grow your own.
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If tightly wrapped, whole vanilla beans can keep for up to one year.
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"Pure Vanilla" by Shauna Sever celebrates vanilla with a stunning array of 80 recipes accompanied by dozens of mouthwatering full-color photos.

Harvested from the pods of beautiful and exotic orchids, vanilla is a delicious flavor enjoyed by people all over the world. Pure Vanilla celebrates its unique taste with a stunning array of recipes, from cakes and cookies to custards and creams. In this excerpt from the introduction, Shauna Sever provides the basic vanilla facts you’ll need to confidently use this flavorful ingredient in your baking.

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Pure Vanilla.

Vanilla Recipe

How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract

Why is vanilla so expensive?

Few food products require the amount of time, special growing conditions, and careful work by human hands that is needed to transform vanilla from its natural state into those beans and extracts on store shelves. That translates to hefty prices, especially for high quality brands. For this reason, I usually buy my vanilla products online from trusted sources.

What does it mean when a vanilla label says “two-fold,” “three-fold,” “four-fold,” etc.?

This is an indication of theproduct’s intensity and concentration. With extract, for example, rulesdictate how many vanilla beans must be used to make 1 gallon of extract(in the United States, that amount is at least 13.35 ounces). So, there istwice that weight of beans in a batch of two-fold vanilla extract, three timesthe weight in three-fold extract, and so on. Most pure vanilla extracts aresingle-fold; food manufacturers tend to use higher concentrations. But ifyou do come across a highly concentrated specialty vanilla product, youmay want to reduce slightly the amount that a recipe calls for, to keep itfrom becoming overpowering.

How do I store vanilla?

Extracts, pastes, powders, and ground beans are best stored in dark-colored, tightly capped jars. Whole beans should be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and then placed in a zip-top bag to help retain moisture. Like any spice, vanilla in any form is best kept in a cool, dark place. Don’t store whole beans in the fridge—it might seem like a logical place, but in fact the damp conditions tend to encourage mold growth on the seedpods.

How long will whole beans keep?

Tightly wrapped, whole beans can keep for up to a year. If they dry out, you can rehydrate them by soaking briefly in hot water. (However, dried beans are still perfectly useable for steeping in hot liquids or for making vanilla sugar).

How long will vanilla extract keep?

Because of its high alcohol content, when stored in a cool, dark place, pure vanilla extract will keep for years. But I hope you use it up a lot more quickly than that!

My vanilla pods have white crystals on them—have they gone bad?

On the contrary! The white substance, or “frost,” found on some pods is pure vanillin and a sign of a well-aged, super-flavorful bean. The crystals should glisten, almost like sugar crystals. (If not, and if they’re accompanied by a musty smell, it might be mildew and it’s better to toss it.)

What’s the deal with imitation vanilla?

The only vanilla-related ingredient in imitation vanilla flavoring is a bit of vanillin. Other than that, you never really know what you’re getting in that bottle. Most often, the remainder is lignin, a wood-pulp by-product. (Not delicious.)

Do I need to worry about the amount of alcohol in vanilla?

Typically, the amount of vanilla extract relative to the total volume of a recipe is quite small. Because the majority of the extract’s alcohol will evaporate during cooking, the alcohol content is not a concern for most people. But if you need to stay away from alcohol for personal, health, or religious reasons, nonalcoholic vanilla extract alternatives are available. These are easy to discern from those containing alcohol, because they’re labeled “pure natural vanilla.” The FDA allows only true extracts with alcohol to be labeled “pure vanilla extract.” Pure natural vanilla rarely tastes as good as extract, though, so I’d recommend using whole or ground beans instead.

What is French vanilla?

French vanilla isn’t a true variety of vanilla but rather a way to describe vanilla-flavored custards and ice creams that have eggs in them.

Can I grow my own vanilla?

In theory, yes. But as any orchid-growing fanatic will tell you, these plants—and vanilla orchids in particular—are incredibly high maintenance. They require high heat and humidity and lots of room to grow, which is why you’re much more likely to find them on a plantation near the equator than in your neighbor’s backyard. Not only that, but successfully hand-pollinating, harvesting, and curing the seedpods to coax out the vanilla flavor and aroma is a whole other undertaking. Personally, I am a city girl who can’t keep even a basil plant alive, so I opt to order my vanilla pods online.

What’s this I hear about vanilla extract from certain places being dangerous?

Vanilla extracts from places like Mexico and the Caribbean have gotten a bad rap because some temptingly cheap, inferior extracts contain chemicals banned for food use in the United States. But don’t let that discourage you from trying pure, high-quality extracts made from Mexican and Caribbean beans, which are too delicious to miss. Just make sure you’re always purchasing your vanilla products from reputable sources.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques by Shauna Sever, published by Quirk Books, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Pure Vanilla.

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