Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Vanilla, and Other Essences

According to Harold McGee, true vanilla comes from the pod fruit of a South American orchid - the so-called bean. Predictably, there are several different varieties of vanilla bean, and different vanilla producing areas produce beans with different flavours. In that regard, vanilla is like coffee, or grapes.

The characteristic aroma of vanilla comes from vanillin; the smell of pure vanillin is sufficient to suggest vanilla. Which is why, on your supermarket shelves you'll find the following products in the cookery needs or spices section:
  • whole vanilla beans, packaged singly in small plastic bags;

  • vanilla extract - a thick brown syrup in small, expensive, bottles;

  • natural vanilla essence - more dilute than the extract, and therefore less expensive;

  • imitation or artificial vanilla essence - a mixture of brown food colouring (for example caramelized sugar) and vanillin in water and alcohol;

  • vanillin sugar - a mixture of sugar and vanillin.
McGee notes that the demand for vanilla flavouring far outstrips the available vanilla bean crop, so most of the vanilla flavouring that is consumed is synthetic vanillin.

How you get the vanilla flavour into your prize-winning sponge cakes is, literally, a matter of taste. In my own cooking I use the extract - pricey but worth it for the more vanilla than vanilla essence flavour you get in the end product. But that's just me - you might be happy with the imitation stuff, or the vanillin sugar. After all, it's vanillin that gives vanilla its characteristic aroma and taste and on that basis, we could argue that, essentially, vanilla is the phenolic compound vanillin.

Forget that we - I wouldn't argue any such thing. Vanillin is what you have left when you take away all the other compounds that contribute to the taste of vanilla bean. Natural vanilla essence is a solution of some, but not necessarily all, the flavouring compounds in the vanilla bean in water and alcohol. My preferred vanilla flavouring, the extract, has maybe a few more of those compounds but again, not all of them. To get the lot - to get the fullest flavour - you need the bean. Beyond my budget most of the time, alas.

You can, nonetheless, argue the diametric opposite of everything I've just written, and insist that what actually matters about vanilla - or any other essence you care to extract - is not to get the fullest flavour, but the purest flavour - that is, its dominant flavour of vanillin. If you're that sort of person, I wouldn't want you sitting across the table while I was tucking into a creme brulee - the conversation would be unbearable:

"What's that?"

"Creme brulee?"

"What are those dark bits?"

"Vanilla bean. Want to try a little?"

"Oh, yuck! What's wrong with a plain simple vanilla custard? Why do they have to spoil it with all this self-indulgent over-flavouring?"

There are worse possibilities, depending on how dogmatic you are about the purity of flavours. Vanillin is often found in wines and spirits that have been treated in wood and the presence of vanilla overtones in these wines - particularly dessert wines - is noted and often approved by wine buffs. But is it proper for wine to taste, even a little, like vanilla? Surely not, if foods are to remain true to their proper essences - wine shall taste only of Wine, while vanilla reverts to its proper place as a flavouring for ice-cream. Not a lesser flavour - an equal but different flavour to accompany and complement the stronger ones - like chocolate.

On second thoughts, maybe not chocolate - its sensuality is beyond redemption.

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