An ongoing series of informational entries
So many choices. So many prices.
Are they all the same? What is the best vanilla? Which one should you buy?
October 8, 2021
1. First, make sure it’s actually extract! Many aren’t!
For a good extract, make sure it is actually extract. Vanilla flavor and vanilla extract are not the same thing. Vanilla flavor is made without alcohol. Propylene glycol or glycerine are used.
If it’s labeled pure vanilla extract, it’s extract. If it’s labeled “flavor,” it can’t contain alcohol. Vanilla extract is stronger than vanilla flavor. Flavor is a good substitute if you don’t want alcohol. Imitation vanilla must be labeled imitation in the US.
In Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America, the labels mean nothing.
Pure Vanilla Extract is EXPENSIVE!!
2. Make certain it’s pure vanilla – and don’t be fooled by a Mexican label!
Do not purchase vanilla extract with a Mexican label, even from a specialty food store or online! Mexican vanilla that is produced by a reputable American company is pure vanilla extract made from Mexican beans. Unfortunately, some specialty food stores carry Mexican vanilla made in Mexico. While it is possible that it is pure vanilla, the chances are more than 99% that it is not pure. Mexico once produced beautiful vanilla beans but the vanilla industry is now almost gone. 100 percent of so-called extracts made there, as well as in the Caribbean and in Latin America, are imitation. They may smell good because they don’t contain alcohol (or contain only 2% alcohol) but they are made from chemicals and are not pure vanilla.
A common misconception exists about vanilla from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. People rave to me about the fabulous deal they got on a giant bottle of vanilla extract in Mexico, Haiti, Guadeloupe, etc. It has such a unique flavor and it’s stronger than any vanilla they’ve ever used. And wow, was it inexpensive!
Well, sorry folks, it isn’t pure vanilla extract. In fact, the cheap, dark (or clear) product in the big bottle is not vanilla at all. It is imitation vanilla with unknown ingredients!
Because vanilla originally came from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and because, at one time Mexico produced the world’s finest pure vanilla, it would seem plausible that it would still be true. In fact, more than 99% of all of the so-called vanilla extract bought in retail venues in Latin America is imitation vanilla.
Why produce imitation and not pure vanilla? Several reasons.
Mexico had the monopoly on vanilla production until the latter part of the 19th century and the vanilla-growing region on the Gulf of Mexico was very prosperous.
In the late 1800s, the French invested heavily in vanilla plantations in Reunion, the Comoro Islands, and later, Madagascar, and by the early 20th century these regions gained control of the world vanilla market.
In the early 20th century, the Mexican Revolution raged throughout the country, and for a while, was especially fierce on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The Mexican industry had to shut down for several years due to the war, and starting up production once the war ended, took time. Then the petroleum companies on the Gulf stripped the natural forests, making vanilla growing very difficult and, over time, it made the area increasingly hotter and less humid.. Mexico’s share of the world’s vanilla supply took a nosedive, but its reputation remained intact for decades.
In the 1880s the first synthetic vanillas came from Germany, providing a cheaper alternative to natural vanilla. Soon it was discovered that synthetic vanillin could be made from paper pulp and coal tar. Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean began selling cheap synthetic vanillas hoping to cash in on Mexico’s vibrant history as the finest vanilla beans in the world. It worked.
By adding coumarin to synthetic vanillin, the flavor was a little more like pure vanilla. Coumarin can be toxic, especially to the liver.
We’ve outlawed its use in the United States since the 1950s. While most labels say, “No Coumarin,” don’t count on it!
Although there are label laws in Mexico they aren’t enforced; in some of the other countries there are no restrictions. So, don’t believe that the label gives you an accurate account of the ingredients. Needless to say, synthetic vanillas are a big industry as most tourists have no idea they are being duped and it’s an easy product to sell.
Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are poor countries and pure vanilla is expensive. Most Mexicans buy imitation vanilla too. If tourists are willing to buy the cheap imitations, all the better for the vendors.
Clear vanilla is pure, synthetic vanillin made by chemists. It’s often called “crystal vanilla.” You can buy it in the US for about the same price.
Dark and murky is synthetic vanillin, most likely ethyl vanillin derived from coal tar. It may also be dark because it contains red dye that we’ve banned in the U.S. or it may contain caramel coloring.
Why does it smell so good? It has no alcohol in it (or possibly 2% as a stabilizer). It may have a high concentration of synthetic vanillin, which makes it smell intensely like vanilla. This is because both natural and imitation vanillin are an important part of the vanilla bouquet. Imitation vanillin is only one fragrance. Pure vanilla has over 500 organic components that make up its fragrance.
There are some vanilla-vanillin blends and some cheap pure vanilla extracts that contain 25% alcohol, but they aren’t worth buying either.
How much did you pay for it? This is the biggest tip-off. If it’s in a big bottle and you paid $20.00 or less, it’s not vanilla extract. Pure vanilla extract usually costs more in Mexico than here in the US.
Don’t waste your money or endanger your health. If you want synthetic, buy it in the States. It’s the same price as you’d pay in Mexico but American synthetics aren’t adulterated with dangerous additives. If you want pure Mexican vanilla extract, buy it from a reputable US company that made it using Mexican vanilla beans.
Here are more tips on finding quality vanilla extracts that may or may not be on the label:
Extracts that contain no sugar or only a small percent of sugar and no corn syrup or caramel color are cleaner tasting. While vanilla is mildly sweet and doesn’t need sugar to boost its flavor, if sugar cane alcohol is used for extraction, it has a harsh nose. A small percentage of sugar will soften the harsh nose and give the extract a more delicate aroma. If the extract is made with corn or grain alcohol, it isn’t necessary to add sugar.
Because of the high prices for vanilla that have hung on despite plenty of available beans, most of the big importers are only bringing in enough vanilla beans to meet their clients’ immediate needs. And most clients are buying only what they need immediately, because the prices could collapse at any time. What this means is that extracts have not had time to age.
Vanilla Extracts have No Expiration Date
Because of the high alcohol content, vanilla will age for about two years and will then remain stable. It’s rather like a call brand Scotch or Bourbon. The smartest thing to do if possible, is to buy your next bottle of vanilla extract before your current bottle is empty. Allow the new bottle to age in a cool dark cupboard. To help the aging process in vanilla extracts that contain no sweeteners, you can add up to 1 tablespoon of sugar per pint of extract. This will soften the harsh nose of the alcohol and help with the aging process. This ratio comes out to about 3% sugar so 1 teaspoon of extract will have minimal sugar.
Are some brands of vanilla extracts better than others?
There are several high quality vanilla extracts in the marketplace, and of those we can’t say one brand is superior to all others because it’s really a matter of taste, not unlike picking out a good wine. We work hard to make our own TOF vanilla extracts the very best that money can buy, but everyone is unique. The trick is to find the one that you like best!
The best vanilla extract – and the foods you use them in – will be anything but plain! It is worth the investment!
Experiment by trying a few of the quality brands. Smell the extracts as if you are smelling a fine wine by moving it back and forth in front of your nose. Then taste it. If it’s mildly sweet, that’s fine; if it’s very sweet, it contains corn syrup or has a high sugar content. If it contains no sugar, the alcohol may appear stronger than the vanilla. This will change when it’s aged or a small amount of sugar is added. Bake with it or add it to a custard, flan or ice cream. How does it taste in your favorite desserts? What about in beverages? Experiment until you find what tastes best to your palate and in the foods you are making.
The best vanilla extracts use higher-cost premium quality beans with a high vanillin content and minimal additives. They should lift and brighten the foods you cook or bake., and add sparkle to beverages.
And more importantly, while the best quality extracts may cost a little more, the improved flavor will be well worth it!
Here at TOF, our mission is to provide you with premium-quality vanilla extracts. Our vanilla extracts contain vanilla beans with a high vanillin content. This gives our extracts an excellent depth of flavor that is so strikingly noticeable that it is not uncommon for us to get repeat buyers!
Pumpkin Spiced Latte Cookie-Muffin Thingies
(the best treat you never knew you needed)
March 15, 2020
For the Mookies:
3 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs @ room temperature
1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
2 cups brown sugar
1 cup avocado oil (or canola oil)
2 tablespoons milk (or plant based milk)
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
4 tablespoons ( ½ stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon milk or plant based milk
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Beat eggs, pumpkin, brown sugar and oil in a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer until well combined, about 1 minute. Add 2 tablespoons milk, 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice, 2 teaspoons espresso powder and vanilla and beat until well combined, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture in 3 parts, mixing until just combined after each addition.
Using approx 2 tablespoons per cookie, drop mounds of the dough onto the prepared pans, at least 2 inches apart. Bake the cookies until firm and dry to the touch, 12 to 14 minutes. Let cool on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, about 20 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Make the frosting: Beat cream cheese, butter and confectioners’ sugar in a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon milk and 1 teaspoon each pumpkin pie spice and espresso powder; beat until combined, about 30 seconds. Spread the frosting on the cookies.
Optional: Dust cookies with a mixture of more espresso powder, cinnamon and powdered sugar for a pretty effect.
February 14, 2020
One of the things I love most about the holidays is the abundant use of spices. I have a proven addiction to anything with gingerbread flavors and Pumpkin! :-) while I usually bake up the traditional gingerbread cookies, cakes, quick breads and muffins, this year I thought I’d try something new. Gingerbread flavored buttercream. Well, not just any old buttercream…swiss meringue buttercream! It’s sturdy enough to stand up to the bold spices yet just pure, creamy and silky enough to make you go back for more. Truly a decadent holiday treat.
Try pairing this with gingerbread cake to enhance that spicy, rich flavor. Or, pair it with a light white or vanilla cake to let the buttercream shine. Try spreading this on some tender shortbread cookies or adding some cream cheese and turning into a holiday dip for cookies or pita chips. So many delicious options!
Gingerbread Swiss Meringue Buttercream
4 ounces egg whites
10 ounces dark brown sugar
pinch of kosher salt
¾ teaspoon molasses
12 ounces soft unsalted butter
2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon allspice
¾ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Note: I like my gingerbread flavors pretty spicy, but I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm. The recipe above provides low to moderate spice, just enough to taste the gingerbread flavors but not enough to kick you in your rear. If you like it less or more spicy, start with less and build up the flavors as needed. Most people find the combination above to be perfect, so if you’re not sure, start there. If you want to get really daring you could even experiment with adding cardamom and/or freshly ground fine black pepper. Just be careful not to go overboard as spices can intensify just a bit as the frosting sits, and too much can lead to a slightly bitter aftertaste.
1. Weigh out the egg whites, brown sugar and molasses in the bowl of a stand mixer and add the pinch of salt. Whisk together to combine
2. Heat, whisking constantly, with mixing bowl over simmering water until mixture reaches 160 degrees or until all of the brown sugar has dissolved completely
3. Place bowl on mixer and beat on high for 10 min with the whisk attachment (between 8 and 10 on a KitchenAid mixer depending on the model)
4. After 10 full minutes, stop the mixer and switch to the paddle attachment
5. Add all of the butter and mix on low speed until thick
6. Add the vanilla and spices on low speed until combined
7. Taste for level of spices, add more if necessary to taste
Let your Eggs Shine
January 15, 2020
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
March 15, 2020
Like a brown-eyed baby born with blue eyes, all my Swiss meringue buttercreams are born vanilla. The only exception to that is my brown sugar buttercream because it doesn’t follow the recipe below. Make up a batch of vanilla buttercream and imagine the possibilities. You can add some melted white or dark or milk chocolate, any kind of homemade fruit puree (which I prefer over jam), crushed candies or nuts, zest of orange or lime or lemon, freshly made caramel…really, anything! Just avoid anything with too much liquid in it, or cream cheese (I’ll tell you how to make that further down in this post) as this can break your buttercream.
This recipe makes a lot of frosting…enough to frost 24 cupcakes with big swirls, or to fill and frost a cake. Recipe can be halved or doubled with no problems, I have even made 1.5 batches of this recipe many times. If you have left over frosting, you can freeze it in an airtight container for up to 2 months or store it in the fridge for a week. To reconstitute it, take roughly 1/3 of the cold buttercream and microwave it until it’s warm and soupy (not hot). Add the warmed buttercream to the cold buttercream and rewhip with the paddle attachment until silky and smooth.
Okay, this is gonna get super easy. Are you ready? Just remember… 10, 15, and 20 (in that order) and you can make this buttercream anytime without even looking at the recipe. To halve of course, would be 5, 7.5, and 10. I’m talking ounces here, so get out your trusty kitchen scale. If you don’t have one…go buy one. With weight, you will NEVER go wrong with this recipe….
TOF Tip: Before you begin, wipe your mixing bowl and attachments (paddle and whisk if using a stand mixer) with lemon juice soaked paper towel. Just squeeze some lemon juice into the bowl and wipe with a paper towel, use that same paper towel to wipe down your mixing attachments. This will remove any residual oils or grease left on the bowl that would prevent your meringue from whipping up into silky oblivion.
Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream
How to make Cream Cheese Swiss Meringue Buttercream:
You would think that you could just add some softened cream cheese to a batch of SMB, but sadly, you can’t. Believe me, I’ve tried it…many, many times. The best method for me is to follow a recipe for plain old cream cheese frosting and sub in the SMB. Like this one, which can also be doubled.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes about 3 cups
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sifted, powdered sugar
2 cups (1 pound) cream cheese, room temperature
Now, instead of using the unsalted butter and the powdered sugar, you will substitute your prepared Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream instead.
Start by beating the room temp cream cheese until completely smooth, then add in the 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons Vanilla SMB and mix on low speed just until combined. Done!
Butter Vanilla Cake
March 15, 2018
For as long as I can remember, since starting to make my own scratch cakes, yellow cake has been my nemesis. I admit that I am pretty hard to please when it comes to a yellow cake because I always imagine a taste like a southern butter pound cake and a mouth feel like a fluffy yellow oil-based…(gasp) box cake. All of the chemicals in a box cake really make for a fluffy, delicious, tender soft crumb and I was determined to recreate that mouth feel minus the chemicals.
You might ask, why not just use cake flour? This, of course would solve a lot of problems but I can’t really sell my cakes as natural and/or organic by using a heavily bleached processed product, and personally I loathe the taste and smell of cakes that are made with cake flour. I can actually taste the bleach and the chemicals and it really takes away from that rich buttery flavor. I knew there had to be a way around this.
SKIP AHEAD TO THE RECIPE
I can’t tell you how many recipes I have tested, because I prefer to stay in denial rather than admit how much money and ingredients I have thrown away due to my obsession with making the perfect yellow cake. I can tell you though, that if a method of making yellow cakes existed, I have tested it. I’ve tried hot milk cakes, mud cakes, meringue type cakes, pound cakes, reverse creaming cakes, simple yellow cakes, white cakes turned into yellow cakes…you get the idea. There were Australian recipes, European recipes, French recipes and countless numbers of American recipes and none of them have scored all 5 stars for me. Even Amish Recipes!
Here’s how I rate each recipe and thus award stars:
1 star for taste – I’m looking for a rich buttery taste here with a hint of vanilla
1 star for texture – Soft, velvety mouth feel with a tender, light crumb with no crusty edges – I do NOT want my cake to feel like a muffin in your mouth
1 star for moistness – The cake needs to stay moist without drying out when it cools
1 star for chemicals – The lack of them, I want the cake to work with all-purpose flour and NOT bleached cake flour
1 star for stackablity – I want the cake to be light, velvety and fluffy, but I don’t want it to crumble and fall apart and I need it to hold up to rich buttercreams, heavy ganache, and multi-level, multi-tiered fondant covered cakes
Whew! That’s a tall order. And anyone who bakes scratch cakes will tell you that this list is pretty close to impossible to achieve ALL five of those stars at once. But have faith because it can be done folks, read on…
At first I considered using oil rather than butter to achieve the moistness and lightness, but not surprisingly, it lacked the butter flavor and left an oily residue in your mouth…FAIL!
I got the texture perfect and got rid of the chemical taste by using self-rising flour instead of bleached cake flour, but then realized that the self-rising flour was also bleached…FAIL!
I tried using a combination of hot milk and butter tempered to a specific temperature (hot milk cake) then added to the A/P flour. The cake smelled and tasted seriously buttery and rich and delicious but the crumb, when cooled, was too coarse and resembled a muffin rather than cake…FAIL!
I tried an A/P flour and corn starch combination and the cake sunk in the middle…FAIL!
I have produced many cakes that taste perfect with a wonderful fluffy texture and buttery taste but every single one, and I am not exaggerating here, has sunk in the last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Were talking anywhere from “looks like someone sat on the cake” to deep meteor craters sent down from the evil cake failing gods. Can I blame the climate of Pennsylvania for this sad disaster of: mix, cross fingers and say a prayer, bake, rise, sink, fail, scrape into trash? Probably. But that wont stop me from trying though and quite possibly becoming the best scraper-of-cake-into-the-trash-bin-while-the-cake-pan-is-burning-your-hand chick…ever!
The good news for you though, is that my past failure can now be your yellow butter vanilla cake saving grace. Why? Because I would say that if a cake recipe works and is awarded all five of those stars AND is baked in the unforgiving location of humid Pennsylvania where you can get a suntan and frostbite all in the same day, you can pretty much bet it will work for you too.
Why this recipe works:
This recipe actually happened by accident. It was a busy day making both my go-to yellow buttermilk cake and my double chocolate sour cream cake. I accidentally added the sour cream for my chocolate cake into my yellow buttermilk cake and realized what I had done half way through baking. To my delight, the cake was the most luscious, buttery, fluffy and moist yellow cake I had ever baked. After a couple of small tweaks to the recipe, it was absolute perfection. The combination of both sour cream and buttermilk is what I believe to be the culprit…that, and the addition of potato starch. Potato starch can be used as a thickener in place of corn starch. It is also used a lot in gluten free baking to soften the crumb of otherwise dense and tough baked goods. The potato starch in this recipe works wonders and lightens up the all-purpose flour and produces a tender soft crumb like cake flour would. You can find potato starch in most grocery stores in the baking isle (Bob’s Red Mill) or natural food stores.
Note: I use weight measurements when baking, but I have tested this recipe with the volume amounts below and it was just as perfect 🙂 If you don’t want to use the potato starch or you cant find it, you can use 3 ½ cups of regular bleached all-purpose flour instead.
Perfect Yellow Butter Vanilla Cake
(Makes 3-9 inch rounds, one half sheet cake, or 3 dozen cupcakes. Recipe can be scaled in half if necessary)
Trial and Error with Black Copper Marans
January 15, 2018
I worked with Marans for awhile and my original line for 3 years. I believed it was a good line but every time I would point out common flaws and ask what others were seeing and what they did to improve the quality they told me that my flock was junk and that I need to cull everything I had and start over. I didn't do that but in the 4th year I did get stock from some of these people that claimed that they didn't have flaws. Guess what? They were full of themselves. I worked with stock from 7 different breeders and I only found one like that I like half as much as my original line. Quality in Marans is not automatic. It's a difficult breed. Some of the problems that I saw were 1) small eggs, 2) hens that laid fewer than 160 eggs in their first year of production, 3) pullets that didn't start laying until there were more than 8 months old 4) black coppers with white undercoats 5) black coppers with white tips feathers of with more than one inch of positive white (i.e. wing feathers, tail feathers, shank feathers 6) Black Coppers that were carrying extended black, wheaten, eB and other recessive color flaws 7) high tails, 8) narrowbodies, 9) weak hocks, 10) heart problems in males, 11) curved backs, 12) upward sloping backs, 13) short backs, etc... and guess what? The biggest criticisms was always egg color. My flock would start laying a nice #5 to #6 but would lighten up to as much as a number 3 after laying 5 eggs a week for 3-4 months. Others tried to reduce the number of eggs their hens laid to one day on one day off so the color wouldn't fade as fast and most claimed their egg color never faded, but ALL seven lines we worked with (even the ones that swore up and down that egg color never faded) did. The hens that only laid 3 eggs a week would take twice as long to fade color since they were laying half as many eggs but anything that can lay at least 4 eggs a week in their first year of production was useless to me and a cull. People don't like that word but cull doesn't always mean kill it just means that they are taken out of the breeding pen. Others claimed that their eggs were a #8, #9, or even one person swore up and down that they were getting a #10. When I questioned him on that informing him that the Marans Scale only went up to a #9 he told me I was told by others that the eggs were a #10. So...it should be too surprising that of the 7 lines I got that most started out laying a #4-#5 eggs. The ever best lines I found would get about 6 out of 8 hens laying a #5 and about one out of 8 hens laying a #6 and about one out of eight laying a #7. I kept probably 100 Marans hens to laying age and only ever had one hen that laid a #8 consistently at the beginning of her laying cycle. We breed her for three years and every year at the beginning of the season she would pop out about 4 #8's then her color would fade to a #7, then a #6. She laid 5-6 eggs a week (and they were XL to Jumbo) and most of the laying cycle they would hold a #5-#6. I would have to go through 1000 hens to find another hen like that. There are many variables and it takes a long time, alot of chicken feed and So Marans Quality is something that requires a lot of hard work. It requires line breed and lot of culling. Crossing the Marans to other breeds ruins them. I know a man that spent 5 years trying to regain the dark egg color in Marans after an outcross and was never able to get it so he culled his flock. A color that is created by outcrossed to other breeds like the Orpington would probably require about 20 years of line breeding to get back to the quality that the line had before it was crossed. So think carefully if your goals are to maintain a SOP