I’m a vanilla girl and I am not ashamed to say so.
If I have to choose between vanilla and chocolate ice creams, I invariably choose vanilla. No, it is not because I am boring and have no imagination, or lack the refined palate that appreciates the chocolate in the chocolate ice cream. My palate is very spoiled, thank you very much, and I prefer not to eat any ice cream than to buy one of those cones with something looking like plastic foam in it from the “fat-free sugar-free ice cream” stands. Have you ever wondered about this – if it’s fat free and sugar free, pray tell me what does it consist of? No, better not tell me, I am not sure I actually want to know.
But, I digress. If the choice is between really good vanilla and really good chocolate ice cream, I prefer vanilla. And I have come to resent the fact that this royalty of the flavor kingdom has come to be regarded as a synonym for ‘boring’, ‘unimaginative’ and generally ‘blah’.
I don’t need to search far and wide to know how we have arrived in this sorry state of affairs. You see, the major flavoring component (but far from the only one!) in vanilla is vanillin (C8H8O3), which is not a terribly complicated chemical to make (in fact I remember us making it in the lab early on during my organic chemistry course), and entirely unproblematic to produce industrially. And it is a good thing, because the demand for vanilla far, far outstrips production, and a lot of the products in which it is used are not nearly expensive enough to justify the expense of using real vanilla from the industry’s point of view. I mean, who’d want basic candy bars to shoot up in price without any notable flavor difference? (and no, with everything else in them, the difference wouldn’t matter, not really)
Why is it then, that natural vanilla is so expensive* (*I’ll come back to this as it is very relative!) and rare? Well, that’s very simple too, really – vanilla flavor comes from vanilla ‘beans’, which are unripe pods of the climbing orchid in the genus Vanilla. And as such (being orchids), they are not easy to cultivate to fruiting condition, and even in optimal conditions, they are not easy to propagate, and require fairly specialized care – not to mention hand-pollination. Yes, if you have handled or seen a vanilla pod in the shop, it was likely the result of a guy with a dry paintbrush tickling a yellow orchid flower half the world away some months prevously. If the resulting fruit set, it was allowed to mature some, then gathered and cured to develop the characteristic flavor. In short, the process requires special climate, is labor-intensive and long.
Cheap ice-cream manufacturers don’t want to pay the premium. Vanillin is used because people want vanilla, and they also want cheap ice cream and chocolate (ice cream and chocolate industries account for about 75% of vanilla use worldwide according to wikipedia), and so the industry responds by manufacturing cheap chocolate and ice cream – with vanillin. And so the vanilla-flavored ice cream is born. Which well… it tastes blah. Like sugar, and not a whole lot else, really. And because most people actually like the flavor of vanilla (I’ve never actually heard of anyone actively disliking it!), even approximated so, it is the most commonly bought flavor of ice cream out there. And so we fall into the trap of “blah”, for vanillin simply does not have the rich, lush profile of natural vanilla from beans.
In contrast, chocolate, which is a far stronger flavor, does not taste nearly as blah when it is made as cheaply – it tastes at the very least of cocoa (which is a lot cheaper than real vanilla), which is not a bad thing in itself.
And so the misconception of vanilla = boring is born. I think it is a grave injustice.
Furthermore, judging from the consumer behavior (and we aren’t talking about high-end shops in better parts of town), a lot of people do not actually know how different and lush natural vanilla extract is, because I see “artificial vanilla extract” and “vanilla sugar: made with vanillin” fly off supermarket shelves – while the pricier bottle of natural vanilla extract doesn’t sell nearly as well, and neither do the test-tube packed vanilla pods.
On the surface, that’s market economy – people try to get value for their money and when they can get something-vanilla for cheaper they do. In reality, it’s neither good economy, nor do you get what you pay for. To the industry, manufacturing vanillin-based “vanilla sugar” is cheap. For you, buying it is expensive. And if you consider that “artificial vanilla extract” is just some water in a bottle with a few crystals dissolved in it, then it doesn’t look like such a great deal anymore.
Let’s look at it from a shopping-cart point of view. A box of vanillin-based vanilla sugar or a bottle of the artificial stuff (about 50ml) can run about 1.5€ – while buying 1 vanilla pod right next to them is only 2€ or so. (I am talking average supermarket price here in Stockholm. You could probably get cheaper vanilla pods if you order them on the net for example.)
But, that one vanilla pod, which doesn’t look all that big or impressive in its pack? It gets you one heck of a lot more than a whole jar of vanillin-based sugar and a bottle of artificial extract! I’m serious.
Remember when I wrote about the glorious and easy to make vanilla ice cream and how it tasted absolutely amazing because of the fresh cream and the homemade real vanilla extract? Well, here’s the thing – all it takes to make real, rich and gloriously aromatic vanilla extract at home is a small bottle (blue or brown glass is best as it protects it from sun damage), half a pod (yes, I used the whole pod but that is because I wanted mine extra rich), and about 100ml of vodka or rum.
Cut your pod in half across, and then slice the half of it you plan to use lengthwise to open up one side of it. Drop it into bottle. Top up with vodka or rum. Close and let stand out of direct sunlight for a week. Your extract is ready to use.
The other half a pod? Cut it lengthwise too, and stick it into a glass jar and cover with fine caster sugar (I recommend that rather than powdered sugar for this as it is less likely to stick). Close and store for a week, shaking occasionally. It will very quickly perfume the entire jar with a very strong vanilla scent! There, real vanilla sugar, too!
So all right, 100ml of vodka may run you another 1€, and let’s assume jar and bottle are free (I wash jars and bottles for such uses and keep them), and the sugar will run you a few euro-cent (pennies, whatever). For the price of about 3€ and about a week’s time, you have yourself a better extract than you could easily buy in any shop, and a jar of sugar already. But, it gets far better!
You see, vanilla pods keep their flavor for a long time. Simply put, there is a lot of flavor packed into it. So when you run low on the extract, just top if off with some vodka or rum again, and if you run low on sugar, refill the jar – and keep using it another few months!
With this sort of economy, there is no reason whatsoever to touch the expensive, blah artificial vanilla again.
So please, do yourself a favor. Go to the shop. Buy that 1 pod of vanilla. Make extract or sugar (whatever you think you’ll use more!), or both, and get reacquainted with the rich and wonderful vanilla as it is meant to be.
Trust me. Whatever else you may think, you will never reach for the artificial extract bottle again. And I sincerely doubt that you’ll use the word “vanilla” for “boring” either.
I know I’ve said it before, but we are not rich enough to buy “cheap” things – not to mention that you usually get what you pay for, and in this particular case, what you lose is the enjoyment which could (and should!) be yours – and besides, if you want something done right, do it yourself. In this case, the difference is truly remarkable.