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.