In Defense of Vanilla

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.

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26 thoughts on “In Defense of Vanilla

  1. I didn’t realise vanilla needed defending! Anyway, it’s so simple to make ones own vanilla essence – it’s the initial purchase that’s expensive, not the final result.

    1. I think it does – need defending that is!

      In the day and age of alternative-everything when “vanilla” is used as a word for “boring” or “standard”, I think people need to be reminded why it became that standard in the first place. That, and too many don’t think they like it because all they’ve ever tried is the artificial variety.

      And I’d not even call the initial purchase expensive – 25% more than a box of vanilla sugar on average, and it does go so much further! (And better!)

  2. Vanilla is my plus favorite flavor and maybe my favorite scent when it’s of the pure variety that you describe. We did our own vanilla extract this year and (WOW!) everybody loves it so much we’ve run out of a quart in just 3 months. All this talk of vanilla makes me want something vanilla. As good as chocolate is vanilla trumps it every time for me. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

    1. Jo, hi and thanks for stopping by!

      And yes, it’s sooo much better than the shop-bought stuff! A lot of things are, but this is one of the easiest to make and really not worth buying!

      1. Oh! Another friend who makes her own actually mentioned using rum too! I might do that next time once I run out! Rum is lovely!

  3. When I had more money I used to buy Madagascan vanilla essence. It now costs about 50 euros. Are you saying that this method produces the same thing?

    1. Christine, if you buy Madagascar vanilla pods, then yes, this method produces the same thing. The more expensive pods may set you back a bit more but not terribly much, no – and to be honest, any supermarket pod produces better vanilla essence than the expensive stuff I used to buy! If you want to go extra luxurious, do like me and bung the whole pod (two halves) in it!

      You can also use bourbon or rum for more flavored boozy essence – plain vodka produces a very clean pure-vanilla note (forgive me for stating the obvious).

      But… 50€?! Where are you shopping for it?! That’s pretty ridiculous!

  4. I am a big choclate fan, but I could drink vanilla straight! I love your post….very informative. My wife does the desert baking and she usually buys real vanilla exrtract so I will have to show her your post so she can try making it herself.
    If not I will do it and splash a little on before going to work….I just have to leave the house quick before my 5 cats attack me!

    1. Thank you and hah! – I think Yves Rocher actually made a perfume based on vanilla and that was it, more or less – was actually pretty lovely (yes I admit to having owned that!). Now I am tempted to try the homemade eau de flavor myself!

      I always resent how hard it is to find a really good vanilla-scented candle – most of the ones sold smell awful!

      1. Oh I know all about Yankee Candles – I used to live in the USA. I love those, and a few other kinds that you could get there. But here, short of a really fancy shop (there are a few) and shelling out a lot of money, the vanilla candles are a bit of a disappointment!

  5. I love your point of view on this. In addition to all the things you mentioned, artificial flavors in general are not as satisfying as the real thing; many people really don’t know what they’re missing. Looking at this from a satisfaction standpoint, our mouths (and so our bellies and our souls) are more easily satisfied by foods with intense, natural flavors, rather than bland/artificial ones. So we may eat less and still feel content. Our bodies know real food is better for us; it’s our brains that steer us wrong.
    I get my vanilla pods from Penzey’s Spices here in the US. They have a website as well as stores all over the country, their prices are better than grocery stores, and the spices are better too.

    1. Oh Penzey’s are lovely! I used to buy their chipotle powder when I lived in the USA – it’s great stuff, and keeps its potency for years, really amazing quality!

      I may consider buying some fancier vanilla pods online myself – I do like being able to see the pod first. Or hm, there is this really nice old spice shop in town that may well have good-quality vanilla (they carry real cinnamon, so it’s likely).

  6. I’d always wondered why real vanilla was so expensive and never realised it came from orchids. You learn something new everyday! I love vanilla – real vanilla flavour of course – and thanks for the advice on making one’s own essence. It will certainly come in handy.

    1. Hey and glad I could make matters clear!

      It’s actually interesting, as the vanilla flower decorates so many boxes of vanilla desserts, but most people think it’s just a pretty decoration and don’t connect it with the source at all!

      And if you love it, definitely make your own – it turns a really beautiful deep tan color after a few weeks, and the strength just keeps growing with steeping time!

  7. You and my boyfriend, man. I was baking for his birthday the other day, and when I mentioned to him that my hands smelled like vanilla bean, he grabbed them and held them to his face. Boy likes vanilla like nobody I know.

    I’ve gotten in the habit of making vanilla sugar every time I buy vanilla beans. It’s quite possibly my favorite more-bang-for-your-buck kitchen trick, and it makes baked goods juuuuuuust that much better.

  8. I’m a big vanilla fan. I have some beans in my pantry, waiting for me to find a suitable bottle to make some extract. Or to make some more ice-cream. Or maybe some custard. Or maybe a panna cotta. Or maybe a…

    I’m heading to Fiji at the end of the year, which is exciting because it’s our first real holiday in seven years, but there’s also the opportunity to buy vanilla beans direct from the producer. As much as customs will let the three of us take home.

  9. Oh man, the vanilla sugar situation in Sweden drives me bonkers! Lucky for me my parents vacation in Mexico once a year and always bring back a huge bottle of pure vanilla extract for me, which is sooooo much better than anything you can find in stores here. I also like to use the pods and stuff them into a jar of sugar when I’m done with them.

    1. Yeah, the fake vanilla sugar is pretty eurgh.

      I used to buy the extract occasionally when I lived in England – the natural stuff there was not terribly expensive compared to the pods, but here it makes no sense whatsoever, so I just make my own. Vanilla pods and vodka are cerentainly not in any sort of short supply in Sweden! ;)

      1. I’ve not used it myself that much so I haven’t looked in Sweden, but if all else fails, http://www.iherb.com/ ship to Sweden for only $6 for a package under 4lbs, and they have at least 2 sorts on their site at cursory search, and it’s organic.

        If you put my email address in as coupon code, you will get a referral discount too, which should offset the cost of shipping on first go. I buy my white whole wheat flour there (King Arthur and Bob’s Red Mill), baking soda in 1lb and not 25g packages, and my favorite American soaps and cosmetics that you can’t get in EU (or not easily). Site looks awful but the service is great so I guess they didn’t invest in the looks but where it matters.

        They have chipotle powder and organic spices in general, as well!

      2. Woah, hot tip! Thanks for that. Do you end up having to pay import fees or taxes when your package arrives in Sweden? Being able to get my hands on Bob’s Red Mill would be a total game changer here!

      3. Nope! Never had any problems – I think they include all that in the price. I just get the boxes delivered directly to my mailbox if small enough, or else I go and get them from the post office.

        When I realized I could buy EO bath stuff there, and decent multivitamins that are not overpriced and more complete than I could get here, I was in 7th heaven! I ordered 2 5lb bags of King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour for bread just recently – can’t wait for those to arrive! I received the Bob’s Red Mill one, but they are a bit more coarsely ground so looking forward to comparing!

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