Vanilla is traditionally extracted from the vanilla bean. However, not every vanilla product uses vanilla bean elements, instead these products contain vanilla flavoring which has been extracted from beavers in the past. But vanilla flavoring is made artificially today by producing synthetic vanilla flavors.
Vanilla is not just one of the most popular ice cream flavors in the world, but you can also find this classic flavoring in other delightful foods, perfume and confectionary.
But have you ever wondered where vanilla flavoring comes from? Amazingly, vanilla flavoring used to be extracted from a substance produced by beavers.
Luckily, new developments in technology mean that we can now artificially produce vanilla flavoring with a range of different techniques.
We take a closer look at where vanilla flavoring and vanilla extract comes from, and how you can tell the difference between flavoring and real vanilla.
Where Does Vanilla Extract Come From?
While true vanilla is extracted from the vanilla bean, vanilla flavoring is extracted in a number of different ways.
In the past, vanilla flavoring came from Castoreum which is a vanilla-smelling substance that beavers secrete when they mark their territory.
Castoreum is a substance which smells and tastes very similar to vanilla. This brown syrupy liquid has been a popular food and fragrance additive since the early 1900s.
However, as the need for vanilla flavoring grew over the years and technology developed, scientists have created a number of new methods to produce synthetic vanilla.
Saying this, the beaver secretion Castoreum is still occasionally used in food and fragrances, so make sure you keep an eye out for the origin of your vanilla flavoring.
As an easier way to make vanilla flavoring in bulk, scientists have developed methods to make synthetic flavorings, such as vanilla, in laboratories.
They essentially reproduce the main compound of vanilla, called vanillin. Vanillin can also be found in vanilla beans and it gives vanilla its distinct flavor and aroma.
Thanks to its fat production cycle, synthetic flavoring is much more popular and widely used in many vanilla-flavored products.
In comparison, the vanilla bean needs to be harvested from vanilla orchids which can take up to four years to grow fully.
That’s why, vanilla used to be an extremely rare spice, and this rarity was also reflected in its expensive price.
With artificial vanilla flavoring, much more vanilla products can be produced. Saying this, there are also vanilla-flavored items that are made with real vanilla beans.
Occasionally, scientists also make synthetic vanilla flavoring with genetically modified fungus.
These fungi turn sugar into vanillin which can then be used as vanilla flavor. You will usually find this vanilla flavor labelled as natural flavoring.
Other Forms Of Vanilla
There are quite a few different forms that you can use to create a beautiful vanilla flavor in your baked goods.
Although vanilla beans and vanilla extract are the most commonly used ways to create a vanilla flavor, you can also find vanilla bean paste.
Vanilla bean paste is a strong mix of vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, sugar and natural gum thickener.
It creates a similar speckled texture and appearance as whole beans.
You can also find vanilla powder which is mostly used for dry mixes, such as dry rubs or pancake mixes.
Vanilla powder is essentially dry vanilla beans that were ground into a fine powder, so it gives you the same vanilla speckles in your baked goods.
How To Tell If It Is Real Vanilla?
There are a number of different ways to tell whether your vanilla-flavored product is made with synthetic or real vanilla.
Check The Ingredients
The easiest way to check if your vanilla product contains real vanilla or vanilla flavoring is by checking the label.
Manufacturers have to clearly indicate when a product contains additives, such as vanilla flavors.
Check The Product
You will also be able to tell the difference between synthetic vanilla and real vanilla when you look at the product.
Real vanilla ice cream, for example, contains small black specks which indicates that it is made with vanilla beans.
You can also find natural vanilla extract for baking where the synthetic flavor is usually called vanilla essence and it has a caramel color.
In comparison, natural extract which is used in baking has a brown color.
Check The Taste
This may not be quite so easy for most of us but real vanilla typically is much stronger in flavor than artificial vanilla.
However, they are very similar in taste, so this might be difficult to check without looking at the color or ingredients first.
Can You Use Vanilla Extract Instead Of Vanilla Bean In A Recipe?
It’s tempting to swap out the expensive vanilla beans with cheaper vanilla extract. However, vanilla whole beans make a big difference to the flavor in your recipe.
Plus, they also create the distinct speckled vanilla look, so replacing vanilla beans with vanilla extract means you would lose the speckles and the strong vanilla flavor.
As a rule of thumb, you should use vanilla beans instead of extract when the vanilla is a main ingredient and it makes a difference to how your dish looks, such as in shortbread.
If the vanilla is just a secondary ingredient, such as in chocolate cake or spice cookies, then you are fine to save some cash and get the cheaper vanilla extract.
For replacing vanilla beans with extract, just use one tablespoon of pure vanilla extract for one vanilla bean (6 inches tall).
The same applies for vanilla paste. You just need one tablespoon of vanilla paste to replace one vanilla bean.
Is Vanilla Extract Vegan?
Yes, vanilla extract and the majority of synthetic flavorings are vegan and plant-based.
Vanilla flavoring used to be extracted from beavers in the past. However, this method is rarely used today.
What Is The Shelf Life Of Vanilla Extract?
You need to store vanilla extract in a cool and dry place, and then it can last for up to five years.
This is the time when vanilla extract still holds its flavor and aroma. However, you will need to keep it in a dark place, such as the back of your kitchen cupboard.
You can’t free or refrigerate vanilla extract.
Vanilla flavoring is a quick and easy way to add a little bit of extra flavor to your cakes, sweet desserts and other food things.
While vanilla flavoring was extracted from beavers in the past, most of the vanilla flavoring in our food today is made of synthetic flavorings that are produced in a laboratory.
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