Since vanilla extract is made from alcohol – which is usually made from grain, the question of whether the extract is gluten free routinely comes up.
The alcohols distillation process removes almost all traces of gluten, making it well below the 20ppm which qualifies as being labeled gluten free.
Having said that, there are some people who are highly sensitive, and can still react to gluten levels well below the 20ppm. For those people, there are several alcohol brands on the market now that use corn, potato, or sugar cane instead of grains to produce their products. For more information on grain free alcohol read: What Types of Alcoholic Drinks Are Gluten Free?
Why is it so Expensive?
Next to saffron, pure vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world. Vanilla beans are the fruit from an orchid grown in tropical climates like Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti, and are harvested under only optimal natural environmental conditions. Growing the beans is extremely labor intensive as each flower is hand-pollinated and, once the beans are ripe, are then hand-picked.
There are two types of vanilla extract, pure and imitation (including clear varieties). There is also a third – which is labeled vanilla flavoring and is a blend of pure and imitation. But for the purpose of this article, I will include those extracts in the imitation category.
Imitation vanilla has a strong flavor with a very bitter aftertaste. This is due to the extracts they are really made from –wood pulp or coal! Pure vanilla, which contains the flavor compound vanillin, is smooth and has an intensely robust flavor.
Pure vanilla extract is produced by steeping vanilla beans in an alcohol and water solution for several months. The longer it steeps, the fuller the flavor and less bitter the aftertaste. The best extracts are left to mature for several years.
To make a cheaper pure vanilla extract, manufacturers can avoid this long maturation by adding a sweetener like corn syrup or sugar. The sweetener works to stabilize the mixture quicker and adds a boost to its aromatic bouquet.
Is Pure Vanilla Extract Worth the Price?
Yes… but if you do a lot of baking and go through a lot of extract, it can start to get very expensive. If this is the case, then only use pure vanilla extract in recipes that are uncooked – like in cold drinks, ice creams, whipping cream, or other cold type desserts – where the bold and rich flavor of the extract can be detected. For baked goods, use a cheaper type of vanilla extract (be it artificial or a blend), since heating will cause some of its alcohol to evaporate – along with some of the vanilla flavor.
An alternative to buying vanilla extract is to make your own. Click here (Homemade Vanilla Extract) to learn how to make it, and if it’s worth it.
How to Store Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans can last up to year if stored in an air-tight container in a cool, dark location. The glass vial they are sold in is the perfect storage container. They should not be refrigerated as it drys the pods out – you want them to maintain their soft pliable texture.
If you see tiny iridescent crystals form on the pod, like a frost, that is actually a sign of a great quality bean. Those crystals are the vanillin that is oozing out.
Types of Vanilla Beans
Like a fine wine, where the beans are grown lend delicate notes to their flavor.
- Madagascar – Full-bodied flavor with a hint of tobacco (because these beans have the highest vanillin content, they are used in most commercial extracts)
- Mexico – Smooth and creamy, with a spicy and woody fragrance
- Tahiti – Has a subtle floral scent, with a hint of chocolate-cherry flavor, or licorice
- Bourbon – Fruity scents of fig, papaya, persimmon and cherries
- West India – Dark rummy scent, hints of cherries with a subtle woodsy scent
- Indonesia – Aromas of prunes and cinnamon
- Tonga – Hints of cherries
- Papua New Guinea – Subtle notes of chocolate and red wine define this vanilla