Q: Can you please tell me the difference between powdered vanilla and liquid vanilla. Is one stronger? Can you only use the powdered for cooking? I ruined a "no cook" icing recipe using the powdered form and have been afraid to use it ever since. Also are some liquid vanillas stronger than others? Like what you get from Mexico? What about cheap ones verses more expensive ones in the grocery store? Lots of questions — hope you are able to answer all 5 of them.
—Emily Soltys, Severn, Md.
A: Your last question is the one I feel most confident answering off the cuff. When it comes to cheap versus expensive ingredients, like vanilla, you tend to get what you pay for. Imitation vanilla or poor-quality vanilla is no bargain, in my opinion. And that goes for all ingredients in cooking. You want the very best you can find and afford.
Now on to vanilla. The vanilla bean is the fruit of an orchid native to "tropical America," according to "The Deluxe Food Lovers Companion." There are, as the Companion notes, three common types of vanilla beans: Bourbon-Madagascar from Madagascar, the African island nation; Mexican; and Tahitian. Like coffee, tea or wine, vanilla has a terroir, or sense of place, you can taste.
The most common form of vanilla, the Companion notes, is vanilla extract. That's made by macerating the bean in an alcohol-water solution to draw out the flavor. The extract is then aged.
Vanilla powder is made by grinding up whole dried vanilla beans and, according to the Companion, "its flavor doesn't evaporate when heated as readily as that of vanilla extract, which makes it better suited for baked goods, custards, etc."
Both Craig Nielsen, chief executive officer at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in Waukegan, Ill., and Donald Schmidt, vice president of operations at Cook Flavoring Co. in Paso Robles, Calif., say vanilla powder can replace vanilla extract on a 1 to 1 ratio. That means 1 teaspoon of vanilla powder should do the job of 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, but Schmidt says you might want to fine-tune that ratio slightly to 1 1/4 teaspoon powder to 1 teaspoon extract. Experiment.
"There should not be a taste difference, at least in speaking of our brand," Nielsen says. He recommends sprinkling vanilla powder over fresh fruit instead of using sugar. The powder enhances the flavor, he says.
Schmidt also recommends using vanilla powder in making an angel food cake. The powder won't weigh down the rising cake batter. Sprinkling vanilla powder instead of sugar on Russian tea cakes or in whipped cream are two more ideas. And don't forget using vanilla powder in coffee, too.
"Vanilla powder also has had the alcohol removed," Schmidt added, noting it is a good choice for those who can not or won't consume alcohol-based products.
One other thing to consider: Powdered vanilla may not disperse quickly into other ingredients, leading to vanilla "lumps." Perhaps that was the problem with your icing recipe? Nielsen suggests dissolving the powder first in any liquid called for in the recipe.
As for your other questions, some liquid vanillas on the market are stronger than others. Nielsen and Schmidt note the United States government sets the standard for "pure vanilla extract," containing at least 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction. The extract must be 35 percent alcohol. Double-strength, also known as double-fold, vanilla extracts are also made and sold. Such bottles are labeled as such and recipes would likely need adjusting to account for the greater punch.
Both men expressed concern about the quality of some Mexican vanilla items.
"It's a crap shoot," Nielsen says bluntly.
The Companion entry on vanilla spells out the problem: "Some Mexican vanilla products — though considerably cheaper than their U.S. supermarket counterparts — are suspect because they contain coumarin (banned by the FDA), a potentially toxic substance that can cause liver and kidney damage. Unfortunately, there's no way for the consumer to tell which Mexican vanilla products contain this toxin so the best safeguard is to buy Mexican vanilla beans from a reliable source."
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