You often see vanilla extract as an ingredient in dessert recipes. What is vanilla extract – and is it really necessary? We asked world-renowned Chef Eddy Van Damme, the “Prince of Pastry” to give us the scoop between this ingredient and imitation vanilla.
Vanilla beans grown in tropical countries can be pricey, so vanilla extract is sold as a substitute for flavoring in baking. Pure vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla beans in water and ethyl alcohol. If vanilla extract is “pure” it means that the vanilla flavoring comes from only the vanilla bean, so the price is a little higher. Vanilla extracts can contain other ingredients such as sugar, which contributes to the sweetness of the product, but not the overall flavor. Extracts without any additional ingredients have a longer shelf life.
Imitation Vanilla is made using (you guessed it) imitation ingredients which often contain chemicals. “While imitation vanilla is less expensive, it often leaves a slight chemical aftertaste which reminds me of cheap candy,” said Chef Eddy. When you use imitation vanilla instead of extract, you save yourself a little money but can end up with an inferior baked good. “In terms of structural or moistness of final product there are no differences,” said Chef Eddy.
Vanilla harmonizes flavors in desserts – and should not be skipped over. “One example is a chocolate candy bar. Chocolate has a naturally strong flavor in itself, but all chocolate bars have vanilla as an ingredient as well to complement and enhance the taste. Less expensive chocolate bars will contain imitation, while more expensive and decadent tasting bars will have pure vanilla,” said Chef Eddy.
Cookies without vanilla will not have that homemade flavor. Leaving out vanilla will make cookies taste like something is lacking, according to Chef Eddy. Vanilla is also used in sweet breads (like raisin or banana bread) to create a delicate flavor and scent.
So, should you use imitation vanilla? “Personally, I do not use artificial vanilla,” Chef Eddy said. “It does not have the same characteristics of natural vanilla.” But pure vanilla extract is worth it’s wait in gold, especially in these recipes.
What is your favorite recipe that contains vanilla?