Extracting the facts about vanilla products

Burning questions

December 14, 2005|By ERICA MARCUS | ERICA MARCUS,NEWSDAY

Sometimes a recipe will call for vanilla, vanilla extract, vanilla flavoring, a vanilla bean or even vanilla paste. Could you please explain the difference?

What we call the vanilla bean is the fruit of the vanilla plant. Vanilla manufacturers immerse cured beans in a solvent of water and alcohol that extracts the flavor. The solvent then is strained and bottled, and the result is pure vanilla extract.

To learn more, I called on Dan Fox, director of sales for Illinois-based Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, a leading producer of vanilla. Nielsen-Massey makes a number of vanilla extracts as well as vanilla paste and vanilla powder. All three products, he said, can be used interchangeably.

Why, I wondered, would anyone want to use paste or powder? Paste, it turns out, is made from unstrained beans, so it contains distinctive flecks of dark brown that one sees in "vanilla bean" ice cream. Fox said that small-batch gelato manufacturers buy a lot of Nielsen-Massey vanilla paste.

Vanilla powder is actually quadruple-strength extract that has been "encapsulated" onto maltodextrin, a corn-based starch that Fox called "the cleanest carrier of vanilla flavor." The presence of the starch dilutes the vanilla back down to single strength.

Powder, Fox said, is used when there are "color considerations." Vanilla powder, while slightly tan itself, results in a whiter finished product.

Another popular use for vanilla powder is as a decorative dry topping for cappuccino. It also is used in hot-cocoa mixes and high-end cake mixes.

Vanilla flavoring (also known as imitation or artificial vanilla flavoring or extract) is made in a laboratory from synthetic vanilla and other flavorings.

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday. E-mail your queries to burningquestions@newsday.com, or send them to Erica Marcus, Food/Part 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Road, Melville, NY 11747-4250.

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