Vanilla Villains: Your Guide to The Bad Guys

Bad guy Darth Vader

In my last post, I shared how to make authentic, homemade vanilla extract. What ensued was a lively discussion over the confusion about the color of vanilla (check out the comments and chime in).

People were surprised that vanilla was steeped in vodka and not bourbon. Vanilla beans are NOT steeped in bourbon. When you purchase authentic Bourbon vanilla extract you are purchasing Bourbon vanilla beans—in extract. Bourbon refers to the name of the beans…not the alcohol.

Vanilla isn’t white. It’s brown. And we’re not talking  a timid, tan or beige. Vanilla is a deep, bold, mahogany-colored brown. When vanilla is steeped in vodka it turns the vodka a toffee-colored brown, not unlike the color of bourbon.

Maybe it’s me but it seems people associate the color white with vanilla. Vanilla ice-cream? White. The flavor of white cake? Vanilla.

So how did this association with vanilla and the color white begin? Imitations!  Anytime you see colorless vanilla, the word vanillin, or the phrase contains real vanilla: it’s all fake. Vanilla is expensive to grow and process so imitations have been created to provide a less-expensive option. Beware the labels. Imitation vanilla is often worded in such a way to make you think you’re getting the real deal. Plus, in some countries real vanilla is adulterated with other less-expensive vanilla-like substances but fail to tell the consumer that they’re dishing out top dollar for an imposter.

What a mess. Here’s your guide to identifying the vanilla villains–imposters of the real thing.

  • Artificial vanilla or “imitation vanilla extract” is made from lignin, a by-product of the pulp and paper industry. Nice, huh? Lignin is indigestable and colorings from coal tar, red and caramal dyes are used to achieve the vanilla extract color.
  • Vanillin, a common substitute, really is a compound from the vanilla bean—only one of about 133 different compounds found in vanilla which give real vanilla its aromatic and complex flavor. Yes, it is an essence of vanilla. But don’t be fooled.
  • Tonka bean extract looks and smells like vanilla but contains something called coumarin. Coumarin has been known to cause liver damage in lab rats and is a banned substance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Vanilla beans were first cultivated by the Aztecs in Mexico. If you’re in  Mexico looking to purchase vanilla from its land of origin–buyer beware. In an effort to reduce cost and maximize profit Mexican vanilla may be mixed with a tonka bean extract.

Good News!

You can eat your white cake with authentic vanilla extract. Look for something called double strength vanilla extract or 2x vanilla (You may even find 3x!) This refers to the strength of the vanilla extract. There are 2x (or 3x) amount of beans per part of alcohol (not bourbon). This means you only have to use half or a third of the amount of vanilla a recipe requires resulting in keeping your cake white. This is NOT the same as colorless vanilla. Vanilla is brown. Colorless vanilla is imitation vanilla that hasn’t been dyed.

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1 Lisa { AuthenticSuburbanGourmet } September 11, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Thank you for the lesson! Authentic real vanilla is purely the best. Enjoy your weekend!

2 Magic of Spice September 12, 2010 at 12:35 am

Wow fascinating information… I had to pause to check my vanilla paste but appears to be the real deal :)

3 Spice Sherpa September 12, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Authentic vanilla has an amazing flavor. If you have a minute check out http://www.ancientfirewines for some awesome cocktail recipes using vodka vanilla. (Similar to a very weak vanilla extract.) I begged him to contribute one of his fantastic recipes to Spice Sherpa and he sent one over! Can’t wait to post it for everyone!!

4 Baking Serendipity September 13, 2010 at 12:02 am

I have been wanting to make my own vanilla for some time now. You sound like quite the expert! Thanks for the advice :)

5 Jason Phelps September 13, 2010 at 8:52 am

First I’ll say thank you for the shout out. The vanilla infusion was an exciting experiment.

I’ve always wondered what all the other “vanilla” stuff was. My mom always used the real deal so I never really considered the other stuff.

I’ve moved on to something similar with bourbon, cinnamon, orange, lemon and simple syrup. My understanding is that the original recipe for Southern Comfort went something like that. I still have the left over vanilla beans and haven’t decided what to do with them yet.

Just the other night we used the rest of the vanilla vodka with some pear wine and ginger syrup to create an unusually good cocktail. Seems like I am on to something here.


6 Spice Sherpa September 13, 2010 at 11:37 am

The more I learn about spices the more there seems to be discovered (awkward wording but you know what I mean). Vanilla holds true to that statement!

7 Janice September 13, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Fun and informative- excellent combination.
I am thinking about making the homemade extract for holiday gifts. It is such a good idea, and so much easier than I would have thought.

8 denise @ quickies on the dinner table September 13, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Thanks for clearing out the cobwebs! Forewarned really is forearmed! Now I know what to look for. Pity real vanilla is sooooooooo costly! I had a walk through tour a few years ago of a vanilla plantation in Bali and when I saw how much a pack of the pods were going for, in their shop, I was sorely tempted to run back inside the plantation to pocket a handful of those pods – of course I wouldn’t have known how to process/cure the raw vanilla pods LOL

9 September 18, 2010 at 1:53 am

great info on vanilla, i have to admit that i thought bourbon vanilla was beans in bourbon….pure vanilla is amazong, really no sub


10 Spice Sherpa September 18, 2010 at 10:30 am

You aren’t the only one! I was totally confused when I made my first vanilla extract a few years ago. I researched it into the ground and was fascinated by what I found. Like many spices, vanilla has an intriguing history. What crosses the brain wires more is the fact that Bourbon vanilla extract looks like bourbon, the spirit. Whenever I use the homemade stuff I always toss in a little extra…for good measure. :-)

11 solublefish November 29, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Just read (!) this one on vanilla, and it got me thinking about a taste test I had read in Cook’s Illustrated some time back, so I dug up the link:
the take-away point is, save your pure vanilla extract for non-baked goods, where the subtle flavor differences of real vanilla really matter to the taste (because they have’t been destroyed by the heat of cooking).
Keep blogging!

12 Spice Sherpa November 29, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Thanks for speaking up Solublefish! That’s a great article, thank you for the link. I recommend it for anyone interested in a vanilla education. However, I find their takeaway message contradicts the content. They prefer real vanilla because it’s authentic yet they recommend artificial if you’re cooking with it. Spice Sherpa takes a stand on real food and tries to steer clear of imitations.

Incidentally, I remember reading a Cook’s Illustrated taste test on peanut butter. They recommended the processed stuff with partially-hydrogenated oil and refined sugar. Why? Because it was creamier in a cookie. There are exceptions but there’s more to good taste in cooking than texture and flavor.

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