The Ultimate Guide to Vanilla: Your Not-So-Secret Secret Ingredient
Vanilla is a cooking staple found in nearly every kitchen. But have you ever wondered where it comes from?
Dive into our Guide to discover the extraordinary origins of this transformative ingredient — and learn how to select the right product for your baking stash.
The Magic of Organic Vanilla
Organic vanilla’s magic works by bringing out the best in your other ingredients. Just how salt enhances other flavors, vanilla gives sweet, rich or fatty ingredients added depth and dimension.
You can have vanilla without chocolate — but without vanilla, chocolate ice cream, pudding or cake wouldn’t have the same drool-worthy OOMPH that makes them so irresistible.
On its own, organic vanilla has a complex and expressive flavor with an equally lovable aroma. Depending on where the beans come from, it can impart floral or fruity notes, creaminess or even hints of smoke.
But not all vanilla is created equal — especially when it comes to purity. In Madagascar, where Simply Organic vanilla is grown, organic vanilla accounts for less than 15% of the total vanilla supply. And read your labels carefully: some products also tout themselves as “all-natural,” but include genetically modified ingredients.
So where exactly does vanilla come from? And how can you ensure you’re getting a quality product when there are so many options (and imitators) to choose from?
Straight from the Source — Where Does Real Vanilla Come From?
Nearly 80 percent of the world’s vanilla supply is grown in Madagascar, a biodiversity hotspot known for its rare and unique wildlife. The vanilla used in extracts and flavorings comes from the beans of the flowering orchid Vanilla planifolia.
Bourbon vanilla (the kind grown in Madagascar) has a rich, creamy and sweet profile, and is bursting with seeds high in vanillin — the organic compound that gives it its classic flavor. The part of vanilla we use — the bean or pod — grows on climbing vines on farms where they are painstakingly pollinized and harvested by hand. Hand-pollination is tricky business, and it can take years of experience to master this skill.
Quick Fact: “Bourbon” vanilla has nothing to do with whiskey! Instead, it gets its name from the Ile de Bourbon, an island off the coast of Madagascar where this species was introduced in the 19th century.
The Challenges of Farming Vanilla
Vanilla cultivation is a time-intensive artform. Once the beans are carefully picked, it can take up to nine months of curing, sweating, drying and conditioning for them to reach a buttery-smooth texture and mature black color. This process is exhaustive — but every step is important for ensuring a potent, quality product.
The challenges to growing, harvesting and curing vanilla go beyond labor intensity. In Madagascar, environmental threats like cyclones make farming vanilla a risky venture. What’s more, a complicated supply chain, thieves, extreme price volatility and competition from imitation products pose serious threats to small family farms where most vanilla is grown.
As a home cook, you can support the organic vanilla farming community by committing to using real, responsibly-sourced vanilla whenever possible.
Creating a Sustainable Future for Vanilla Farmers
To better support organic vanilla farmers, Simply Organic develops relationships with farmer co-ops — some we’ve worked with for more than a decade. We also play a leadership role in the spice industry by advocating for better sustainability practices and labor rights in the vanilla supply chain.
As part of Frontier Co-op, Simply Organic is a founding member of the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative, whose members include other companies like ours. Together, we’re actively working to promote a long-term supply of socially, environmentally and economically sustainable vanilla. We also partner with like-minded companies and farmer co-ops to support bold projects, like an agricultural training school in Madagascar that offers teenagers from Madagascan vanilla-growing families a unique opportunities to improve their livelihoods.
(Continue reading below for more on vanilla.)
Simply Organic Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract 4 fl. oz. SKU: 18532$21.59
Simply Organic Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract 2 fl. oz. SKU: 18531$12.49
Simply Organic Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract 8 fl. oz. SKU: 19852$39.99
Simply Organic Simply Organic Non-Alcoholic Vanilla Flavoring 2 fl. oz. SKU: 19492$12.49
Simply Organic Simply Organic Non-Alcoholic Vanilla Flavoring 4 fl. oz. SKU: 19498$21.59
Types of Vanilla — Explained
Vanilla extract is a fragrant, amber-colored liquid made by steeping vanilla beans in ethyl alcohol and water. To be considered a “pure vanilla extract,” it needs a minimum of 35 percent alcohol and at least 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter. The best pure vanilla extracts contain over 200 flavor and aroma compounds!
What’s the Difference between “Pure Vanilla Extract” and “Natural Vanilla Extract?”
“Pure vanilla extract” and “natural vanilla extract” are not one and the same. If you see “With Other Natural Flavors” or “WONF” on the label, this means other (usually less expensive and sometimes genetically modified) ingredients have been added, which can introduce unwanted chemical carriers.
Using a pure, organic vanilla is the best way to ensure a sustainable product free of added sugars, GMOs or any other questionable ingredients. It’s also the best way to ensure a great flavor!
Try for Yourself: Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract was rated as the best pure vanilla extract by Cook’s Illustrated in 2018. Give it a try in recipes like vanilla pudding, where its flavor really shines.
Not to be confused with the imitation stuff, vanilla flavoring is also made with real vanilla beans. Unlike vanilla extract, it’s suspended in water and vegetable glycerin, making it suitable for those avoiding alcohol.
While some vanilla flavorings use vegetable glycerin made from genetically modified sources, Simply Organic Non-Alcoholic Vanilla Flavoring is always organic and made without fake flavors, colors, GMOs or added sugar.
Whole, organic vanilla beans are a prized ingredient in baking sometimes referred to as “black gold.”
To substitute vanilla beans for extract in recipes, use one pod per tsp. vanilla extract.
Quick Tip: 1 Vanilla Bean = 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract
Cooking with organic vanilla beans is quick and easy. Simply cut the bean lengthwise and scoop out the pulp and tiny black seeds inside — these lend potent flavor and delicate specks of color to dishes like ice cream and apple pie. You can use spent pods, too, by boiling them in tea or coffee, or even adding them to your sugar jar.
Imitation vanilla extract and flavorings are made with vanillin, a chemical compound most often derived from byproducts of industrial agriculture or forestry.
While vanillin is the dominant flavor and aroma compound found in real vanilla — it’s far from the only one. Pure Bourbon vanilla extract contains a wealth of naturally occurring compounds to give it superior depth and nuance. Like a great cup of coffee, you can pick up on more than just the obvious flavors to appreciate its more subtle qualities. But because imitation vanilla only contains one compound — vanillin — it’s less expressive and missing out on the delicate notes that make pure extracts special.
Since imitation vanilla is clear, caramel color is often added to make it look more authentic. Sugars and other synthetic flavors are sometimes added as well.