Vanilla extract is one of the most important ingredients used to make fudge. That is because vanilla gives fudge an awesome taste, not to mention bringing out the flavors of other ingredients used to cook fudge. But why is vanilla extract so expensive in cooking?
Vanilla extract is so expensive in cooking because of the market value. It is worth noting that 80% of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar. Since the country is, by far, the largest supplier of vanilla, it can set the market value of this product.
Keep reading to learn more about vanilla extract, the difference between artificial and real vanilla extract and why it is so commonly used to cook fudge.
How are vanilla pods farmed?
Vanilla pods come from vanilla plants, which are tropical climbing orchids native to Mexico. This explains why those looking for the world’s best vanilla beans go to Papantla, Mexico.
Vanilla beans may look simple, but a lot of work goes into producing them. Well, one of the reasons why it is pretty daunting to produce vanilla beans, or rather, farm vanilla pods is that the Melipona bee is almost extinct. The Melipona bee is the natural pollinator of vanilla crops.
That being said, vanilla plants do not have a natural pollinator. As such, vanilla orchids must be hand pollinated. And, to achieve that, a small membrane must be moved. After that, the stamen and stigma are touched together so the flower can be fertilized.
Pollinated vanilla plants have vanilla beans forming on their vines. These beans form as green and tasteless vanilla pods.
To achieve optimum growing conditions, nearly all vanilla plants are grown and trellised in shade houses. Once vanilla pods have formed fully, they are harvested before being sweated in wooden boxes. Vanilla farmers do this to activate naturally-produced enzymes. These enzymes eventually turn the pods black, thereby, creating a vanilla flavor.
After the pods are sweated in wooden boxes, they are placed on mats in the sunshine. Here, they absorb the heat that comes from the sun. And this heat makes the enzyme action to keep producing vanillin.
At night, the vanilla pods are stacked on racks so they can continue to sweat. And when the next day comes, they are put out in the sun again. This process varies based on the thickness, size, and moisture content of vanilla pods. It goes on for around 12 to 28 days. So as you can see, producing natural vanilla is a very labor intensive process.
What’s the difference between vanilla pods and beans?
Vanilla pods are from a vanilla plant, and their insides contain tiny seeds or beans. Like pods, vanilla beans have some flavor; hence, you can as well use them to make fudge and even vanilla ice cream.
To use them in a recipe, start by cutting the end of the pod. After that, use a sharp paring knife to split the pod lengthwise down the middle. Next, scrape out the seeds gently from the top all the way down. Do not throw the empty pods away, since they can come in handy in making pure vanilla extract.
What is vanilla extract?
Vanilla extract is a liquid flavoring derived from vanilla bean pods. To make it, all you need to do is soak vanilla beans or pods in water with an alcohol-based solution for several months. It has to be several months to allow time for the vanilla flavor to be nicely extracted from the vanilla beans.
Given that the process of making vanilla extract is mostly natural, expect your extract to not lose much flavor even when stored for long periods of time.
Ideally, consider storing your vanilla extract in a cool dry place that is away from heat and direct light. This way, you will always have it in perfect condition to make excellent vanilla fudge every time. Also, make sure you store your extract in an airtight sealed container to preserve its flavor as much as possible.
Pure vanilla extract vs artificial vanilla essence
Pure vanilla extract contains vanilla beans/seeds, alcohol, and water. As mentioned earlier, an alcohol-based solution is essential in extracting flavor from vanilla beans.
According to the definition of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about vanilla extract, pure vanilla must have at least 35% alcohol by volume. Pure vanilla should also have at least 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter. What’s more, some brands of pure vanilla have a little sugar to keep the extract emulsified. According to FDA, this is completely okay as long as the sugar does not affect the flavor.
Artificial or imitation vanilla extract is also known as vanilla essence, on the other hand, gets its vanilla-like flavor from a naturally-occurring compound called vanillin. Although vanillin is in real vanilla beans, you can make it without any of these beans.
That explains why it is a cheaper artificial vanilla than pure vanilla. Also called imitation vanilla flavor, the artificial vanilla extract contains such ingredients as fermented bran, pine bark, clove oil, and lignin, among others.
Why is vanilla extract so expensive?
Up to this point, you already know that there are two types of vanilla extract: pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla flavor. Although imitation vanilla flavor shares the same flavor and texture as pure vanilla, it is artificially made.
As such, it is much cheaper than pure vanilla. A small bottle of pure vanilla extract costs around $5 to $6 per ounce. On the other hand, artificial vanilla extract costs around $0.10 to $0.30 per ounce.
That being said, these are some of the reasons why vanilla extract is so expensive:
• There is only a single species of vanilla plants
• Labor shortages
• The processing of vanilla extract is tedious
• Very few countries grow vanilla
Why does vanilla extract have alcohol?
To extract the true flavor of vanilla from vanilla beans, an alcohol-based solution has to be used. Ideally, pure vanilla contains around 35% alcohol. The reason why alcohol is used is that it is effective in extracting vanilla flavor.
Is vanilla extract necessary?
Vanilla extract is one of the most important ingredients in making fudge. It adds a touch of sweetness and flavor. But, given vanilla prices at the moment, you may not be in a position to get access to it when making fudge.
So, do you stop making fudge? The answer is no; thanks to lots of vanilla extract substitutes out there including vanilla milk, vanilla beans, and vanilla paste/powder, among others, you can still keep on making delicious vanilla fudge – even on a budget!
What can vanilla extract do for fudge?
It is important that you add vanilla extract to the fudge. That is because the extract not only adds more flavor chemically but also brings out the flavors of other ingredients used to make fudge.
Although it is not a must that you add vanilla extract to fudge, if you are looking to improve the taste of your fudge, it is important that you consider using the extract. Ideally, you should pick pure extract over imitation vanilla flavor. That is because the taste difference in fudge is extremely noticeable.
Can kids have vanilla extract?
The amount of vanilla extract you use to make fudge is normally so tiny that the alcohol in that amount is always not dangerous. With that said, you can confidently make fudge for the entire family.
You should, however, be careful when handling vanilla extract around kids. That is because kids can suffer alcohol poisoning if they swallow the content of the entire bottle of homemade vanilla extract.
Vanilla extract, particularly pure vanilla, may be more expensive than its artificial counterpart. But, given that it is stronger than the imitation vanilla flavor, the pure extract is highly recommended, especially when cooking fudge.
Want to learn more about other cooking ingredients? Check our knowledge posts: