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What exactly is vanilla? And what does it have to do with beavers?

Thankfully, nothing (anymore!)! But let me explain…


In an effort to make some room on our bookshelves at home, I started purging my old collection of Food Network magazines, and came across an article on vanilla that mentioned imitation vanilla coming from wood pulp.


That sent me down a rabbit hole to figure out what exactly is the difference between all the vanilla options out there. At our bakery, we always use real Madagascar vanilla bean or pure vanilla extract. But is imitation vanilla ok too?


I found all kinds of articles talking about using chemicals for imitation vanilla, from beaver glands, to wood pulp, to petrochemicals. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned:


Beavers: so it turns out beavers have a scent gland under their tail, that they use to mark their territory. Because of the tree bark in their diet, it has a musky smell similar to natural vanilla. And in the past, this musk used to be collected from beavers, and used in perfumes and food items to enhance a vanilla flavour. Thankfully this isn’t done anymore because that’s kinda gross, it’s hard & costly to do, and not cool for the beavers!


Wood: certain types of woods, like oak, have vanilla-like compounds that are nearly identical to in molecular structure to natural vanilla, and can be extracted to create vanilla flavour. Oak is commonly used in the alcohol industry to create vanilla flavours, by aging the alcohol in oak barrels. Some manufacturers add extra oak blocks to further enhance the vanilla flavour. It can also be used to create imitation vanilla.


Petrochemicals/Synthetic Vanilla: this is how most of the artificial vanilla is produced these days. They take two chemicals and combine them to create vanillylmandelic acid, which then reacts with oxygen to create vanillin, and artificial vanilla compound that is used to make imitation vanilla extract.


Real Vanilla: as much as we call it a bean, vanilla is really a fruit that grows from a vanilla orchid. There are over 100 species of vanilla orchid, but the most common is flat-leafed vanilla from Mexico and Belize. When each orchid flower is fully grown, it will open in the morning, and close in the early afternoon on the same day, never to reopen. If the orchid is pollinated (usually done by hand to make sure it’s pollinated during this tiny window), the vanilla fruit pod will start to grow. It takes 8-9 months to grow a vanilla “bean” before it is ready for harvest (also done by hand). It’s quite the tedious process, and explains why vanilla is considered the second most expensive “spice”, second only to saffron.


So is it worth all the work? We say yes! But if you’re looking to save some money, it really depends on what you’re using it for. While true vanilla contains vanillin (what artificial vanilla is made of), it also contains other phenolic compounds that add complexity and depth to your vanilla flavour profile. So the general rule of thumb is that if you’re making something where the vanilla flavour is front and centre and needs to shine (lets say a vanilla creme brûlée), then yes, go all out and use a real vanilla bean, and scrape out the seeds (bonus, you get all the pretty vanilla bean specs in your dessert too, like in our vanilla bean ice cream). But if you’re making cookies or brownies at home, and want to save a couple bucks, go ahead and use the cheap stuff.


DIY: Another option is to make your own vanilla extract at home. It’s super easy. You really just stick some sliced vanilla beans into a bottle of vodka, rum, etc, and let it sit for a few weeks in a dark cabinet. The alcohol will extract all the yummy vanilla flavour, and you can use this in all your baked goods. We have a big jar in our cupboard at home for all our home baking. It’s amazing, super easy, and lasts forever.


So there you have it… I knew vanilla came from orchids, but didn’t know the flowers only opened for a few hours, ever. Makes me appreciate vanilla even more.


And at our bakery, we always go all out and use real vanilla bean or real pure vanilla extract in all our baked goods. But that's the way we roll. Only the best for you!

2 Comments


Guest
Jun 05, 2023

Thank you for sharing your research Mary. I've been debating this very issue lately and have decided to continue my adult daughter's tradition of soaking vanilla beans in vodka. I've hoarded a few of her 7 yr old bottles and can't wait to use them. Agreeably, there's nothing like it. 😋

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Mary Draper
Mary Draper
Jun 06, 2023
Replying to

That's so awesome she's already got some going (and that you can dip into it and share he spoils, lol!). Some people are worried about the alcohol, but it cooks off during baking.

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