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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Vanilla Notequal Bland

In modern usage, the word 'vanilla' is often used to describe something that is either bland or lacking in excitement.  We tend to think of vanilla is the 'safe' choice when too many options abound... the default ice cream when 31 flavors (or more) are just too many to ponder.

However, since moving to Israel, it has quickly become painfully apparent that vanilla is neither a dull flavor nor some culinary wall-flower to be taken for granted.

You see, bakeries here rarely (if ever) use real vanilla extract in their products, and Israeli ice creams calling themselves 'vanilla' have only an off-white color in common with their European or American counterparts. 

If you've ever tasted a store-bought Israeli pastry and been put off by an unidentifiable flavor, the culprit was almost certainly fake vanilla extract. (i)

Just as a point of information, imitation vanilla is synthesized from either eugenol (clove oil), waste paper pulp, coal tar, or coumarin (a substance found in tonka beans that is banned in many countries).(ii)  Think about that the next time you bite into some store-bought rugalach! 

So beware of products that have 'vanilla flavour' or any similar crap in the ingredients list.  You are almost certainly getting one of the ersatz 'vanillas' I've just mentioned.

This is one of the reasons that my lovely wife does so much baking at home (the other being a strong aversion to hydrogenated fat).

The problem is that even home bakers have a very hard time finding real vanilla extract here in Israel.  And when you do find the real stuff, you'd better be prepared to pay dearly for a few precious drops of the stuff!

The solution my wife (and countless others) have come up with is to manufacture real vanilla extract at home... a simple and relatively cheap process that anyone can master:


1 750 ml bottle of cheap vodka or bourbon (bourbon is more traditional but vodka allows for a more pure vanilla flavor to come through so it can be used in a wider range of recipes).

3 whole vanilla beans (you can buy these long slender brown beans in most gourmet shops or in the local produce market/shuk


1. Open the bottle of bourbon/vodka and pour out one ounce into a shot glass

2. Put all three whole vanilla beans into the now open bottle.

3. Reseal the bottle tightly

4. Place bottle in an out-of-the-way place and wait 6 weeks.

You now have pure vanilla extract... that's all there is to it!

What's that?  You want to know what to do with the shot of bourbon/vodka you poured out in step 1?  People, people... do I have to tell you everything?  Just make it go away... how that happens is entirely up to you.  Who says you can't have fun in the kitchen?!

Anyhoo, after 6 weeks you will have a ready supply of real vanilla extract that will last even a frequent baker a year or two.  As time goes by the vanilla flavor will get even stronger, so there is no hurry to use it up.

So, next time you're tempted to use the word vanilla in a back-handed or disparaging way, just remember that real, bold, vanilla flavor in ice cream, baked goods or anything else is anything but bland.

(i) The Vanilla.Company
(ii) The Encyclopedia of Spices


Posted by David Bogner on November 27, 2005 | Permalink


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A close family member of mine used to work at a flavor company in Brooklyn, which had a great number of authentic vanilla extracts. See http://www.virginiadare.com/vanilla2.html for more info.

Posted by: The Hedyot | Nov 27, 2005 1:53:37 PM

Thank you for these instructions. Makes sense.

Similarly, one can make vanilla sugar by sealing the vanilla pods in a jar of sugar for some time.

Some recipes call for use of the seeds or the whole sliced-open pod.

(The rainbow photos of the other day were spectacular.)

Posted by: t | Nov 27, 2005 1:54:03 PM

Nice coincidence - Rhonda and I went out for breakfast today and while tasting the desserts we had a whole discussion on the Vanilla problem here! She told me that there's a huge supply of pure extract "coming" to our Yishuv very soon, which should improve the quality of the baked goods tenfold.

Of course, smuggling seems to be a pastime here - hot-dogs...tuna...even herring has its own market! Its a criminally delicious avocation.

Posted by: yonah | Nov 27, 2005 3:39:44 PM

Cheapo Araq or cheapo "kohol" alchohol both do the trick just fine.

Posted by: Jameel Rashid | Nov 27, 2005 4:38:03 PM

fantastic. i will put this up right next to our limoncello batch.

Posted by: lisa | Nov 27, 2005 6:11:16 PM

' have only an off-white color in common with their European or American counterparts.

Real vanilla does not tint foods - not in the warm vanilla tint we've come to adapt to. That tint is usually reached by adding natural or artificial food colorings (e.g. carotine). If you prepare a vanilla cream using real bourbon vanille, the cream will contain the bean's tiny seeds, but I can't say I ever saw that creamy vanillaish in my pots I saw in store-bought vanilla creams?

It's funny people want to rely on extracts anyways, when the natural foods provide just enough flavour to make a perfect dish. It's our palates that are badly spoiled by corporate food designs. Unfortunately.

I have a Weck glass jar, where I always keep about a kilo sugar and a vanilla bean (just the shell; the seeds went into a vanilla cream). This bit of "leftover" is just enough to infuse my sugar since more than a year. And it comes all alc-free, too.

(you can do the same with green cardamom pots, which is perfect for oriental food things)

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 27, 2005 6:21:49 PM

Wouldn't the quality of the bourbon or vodka make a difference in the outcome of the extract? I had always heard that if you cook with a cheap wine or liquor, there is a difference in the taste of the food. Is it the same for the extract?

Posted by: jaime | Nov 27, 2005 7:42:56 PM

Wouldn't the quality of the bourbon or vodka make a difference in the outcome of the extract? I had always heard that if you cook with a cheap wine or liquor, there is a difference in the taste of the food. Is it the same for the extract?

Posted by: jaime | Nov 27, 2005 7:43:21 PM

btw, you can keep the extract going for a while, several years, in fact, by continuously adding more vanilla beans (available at the pereg concessions in mega) and topping up the vodka bottle as needed. this is according to ina garten, cookbook writer, hamptons gourmet shop owner, caterer, and my favorite foodie.

Posted by: nikki | Nov 27, 2005 7:54:00 PM

And to think that a few major Israeli chefs have protested the move by McCormick/Schilling to stop selling 100% vanilla extract in Israel. Why bother when we can make our own!

And Jameel, I have to admit that my toes curled when I thought of using Araq as the alcohol base for making vanilla extract. As you can tell, I'm not a big fan of Araq. (ugh) (and that's being polite. What I really wanted to say was OH YUCK!) '-)

Posted by: jennifer | Nov 27, 2005 8:02:04 PM

My lady wife does precisely the same thing - just make sure that the vanilla pods are fresh - they should be a little sticky to the touch.


Posted by: gilbenmori | Nov 27, 2005 8:34:15 PM

Great, yet another trick for me to master. Well, this sounds like the kind of work that could be a lot of fun.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 27, 2005 8:44:51 PM

Great! I am going to try it just for the heck of it . . . well, that and the leftover ounce.

Posted by: Timothy | Nov 27, 2005 9:07:02 PM

The Hedyot... Thanks for the link... looks like yummy stuff!

t... From what I've read (and what mademoiselle a. just confirmed) the Europeans tend to use the bean and seeds in food preparation while Americans prefer to create extracts. TO each his/her own. Glad you liked the pictures.

Yonah... I can see smuggling in stuff that is either hard/impossible to find or just plain expensive. But this is so easy I can't imagine anyone going to the trouble to mule it in.

Jameel Rashid... The anise flavor of the Araq would totally corrupt the vanilla flavor! Yuck!

Lisa... Our lemon tree has about 15 lemons that are almost ready to pick. Any guesses what I'll be doing with those?

mademoiselle a. ... I wasn't suggesting that the vanilla colored the ice cream, but rather that both real and ersatz vanilla ice cream both tend to be off-white. As I mentioned in my response to t., some of what I read today mentioned that you Europeans tend to prefer using the bean and seeds rather than the extracts. One question: With the sugar, do you have to stir it occasionally to get the flavor distributed evenly?

Jaime... What I have been told is that with extracts it shouldn't matter since the alcohol base evaporates during cooing/baking, leaving behind only the extracted flavor. There is a lot more of the original beverage left behind with wine and beer so one might want to cook with better stuff there.

Nikki... Thanks, I'll pass that along to Zahava.

Jennifer... Don't cloud the issue with logic! Israelis have a right to protest (or even strike) for any reason they choose! :-)

Gil Benmori... I knew i liked that girl when I met her! :-)

Jack... It's really quite simple: You pick up the shot glass... oh, you meant the other part? ;-)

Timothy... That's the spirit... take one for the team! The things we do for the sake of education, huh? :-)

Posted by: David | Nov 27, 2005 9:29:29 PM

I love vanilla and tried the Hot Vanilla at Coffee Bean. It was ok.

Your blog is anything but vanilla.

Best thing about vanilla though is it is a useful word in Scrabble when you have the V.


Posted by: Jeru Guru | Nov 27, 2005 11:31:28 PM

Okay, using two points of critique in one sentence can be irritating - so, let me put it slightly different.
Be happy for the fact that Israeli producers are less fond of food colorings. Most vanillaish foods you get outside Israel use a colouring that is derived from bugs and therefore not kosher. Or they use chemistry. Riboflavin is popular, too...but it's alltogether sad to realize that corporate concepts overrolled the natural item. If you'd ask around, everyone would tell you that "vanilla = creamy yellowish tint". Which is just not true.

People here are using vanillin sugar, which is slightly different that real bourbon vanilla. Real bourbon vanilla bean is a bit expensive, but still preferred. Extract is not too common here, and that's good so.

You don't have to stir the sugar, the bean will do all the work for you. Just fill a jar with sugar and poke the bean shells in there and let sit for some days to infuse. As I said, this goes a long way, meaning that all you need to do is to refill sugar and leave the shells in there (you are not going to use them with the sugar, of course).
Nature at its finest!

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 28, 2005 12:55:47 AM

Now you tell me? I'm going to have to go back to my supermaket and exchange that fake stuff for the real thing.

Posted by: Jewish Blogmeister | Nov 28, 2005 3:29:29 AM

very cool...yet another tidbit I learn from your informative blog.

Posted by: Essie | Nov 28, 2005 3:34:46 AM

David, your reply to Lisa just gave me a flashback to when my husband and I were visiting the Amalfi coast with all those yummy lemon trees and the delicious taste of the local Limoncello!

Posted by: jaime | Nov 28, 2005 4:00:47 AM

Funny you should blog about this. The husband had a bug up his butt to make his own vanilla (Lord knows why, he never bakes) and he sampled every "potato" vodka until he found what the thought was the perfect one (Chopin Vodka). Then he made the vanilla. I raved about it, but deep down I really prefer the pure vanilla extract my parents brought back from their cruise to Mexico.

Why is pure vanilla extract not sold there?

Posted by: Stacey | Nov 28, 2005 7:29:30 AM

Jeru Guru... I'm the guy in scrabble that ends up with A A A E I O O. Please don't tell me about your problems in using the letter 'V'. I've never actually gotten a 'V'. :-)

mademoiselle a. ... I'll have to try that with the sugar. I wonder if it would also work with Splenda? :-)

Jewish Blogmiester... Don't blame me... I'm just sharing information.

Essie... The great part about reading the blog of an ignoramus like me is that nearly everything I hear or read is new and noteworthy to me. Whenever I write about stuff like this I get all kinds of emails saying, "Duh... where have you been? Doesn't everyone know about this already?" Don't you wish you kept a blog? :-)

Jaime... You can find the recipe for Limoncello here. I've tasted the results. :-)

Stacey... 'Pure Vanilla Extract' is exactly what I've described. The variety of tastes is dependent upon what they use for the alcoholic base and the quality/freshness of the vanilla. There is also the process by which the vanilla beans were handled after being picked. If you read the two links I provided you will see that the actual beans can be handled very differently before they make it to the store.

Posted by: David | Nov 28, 2005 12:14:54 PM

Oh, great. Because I was so intrigued by your posts on bees and honey, I got a book on the history of honey. Now, because of your vanilla post, I have just ordered "Vanilla: Travels In Search Of The Ice Cream Orchid" and "Vanilla: The Cultural History of The World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance" from Amazon, I am beginning to wonder if I will ever get to see a work of fiction again...

Posted by: mcaryeh | Nov 28, 2005 12:29:33 PM

Mcaryeh... I'm flattered that you take some of these topics so much to heart, but if you knew me personally you'd know that I am very much a 'fiction' kinda guy.

Posted by: David | Nov 28, 2005 1:00:41 PM

'Fiction' kinda guy, huh? (whispering the names "Discworld" and "Terry Prachett" again...) '-)

Stacey, real vanilla extract was available here for a long time. But just like everything else that is imported from the US (like real maple syrup), it came with a nice price tag on it that was out-of-sight. (The Israeli vanilla extract is 100% artificial.) Now McCormick is selling here a watered down version that's 50% real vanilla extract and 50% artificial. After reading what David wrote about how that artificial stuff comes about, I think I'm making my own from now on. (Thank you again, Zahava!)

Posted by: jennifer | Nov 28, 2005 6:39:38 PM

Pure Vanilla Extract has a fat little price tag even in the states. Now you've got me wondering where I can find whole vanilla beans since Lach loves the flavor.

Posted by: Bayou | Nov 28, 2005 8:29:54 PM

For those who do not use extract, I have questions. I understand of course using the seeds or whole split pods in custarads and ice creams and such. I am guessing that one would make, say, brownies using vanilla sugar, thereby not needing to add extract, is that right? And what is done when vanilla flavoring is wanted in something that does not contain sugar and is not something that is cooked or in which seeds would be desireable? Thanks.

Posted by: t | Nov 29, 2005 10:13:42 AM

my guess is that if you tried to infuse loose sukrazit (I'm opting for the no-brandnames version), you'd receive lumps, because of the finer grains / powder. But it sure is worth a try. Also, it would be interesting to test it flavourwise, since you'd have to use less amounts of infused sukrazit in comparison to infused sugar. Lastly, liquid sukrazit should be interesting, too. Theoretically, it could work just like with Vodka, only without the alcohol.

T, I was just writing a whole explanation, when I realized your point in posting. Oh well. Can you give an example of a dish that has neither sugar in it, nor should be cooked / heated, but should have a vanilla flavour? There are countless ways of flavouring.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 29, 2005 9:42:52 PM

Hey, we're coming to Israel in a month - want us to bring you a costco sized Vanilla?

Posted by: Chavi | Nov 29, 2005 10:39:26 PM

mademoiselle a.,

Thank you.

What did your explanation regard then? I am eager for any information form you.

So, was I correct about the brownies (or other baked goods)? I was excited when I asked myself last week -- Oh, but what about adding vanilla when I make brownies -- and then figuring out -- That's when the vanilla sugar is used!

I seem to vaguely recall a (I think) Pesach recipe (not a cake-like item) that specifically requires vanilla sugar.

So, examples. How about a frosting? If it uses confectioners sugar (on the topic of too-fine a consistency) or some other sweetener (honey), how would that work?

Another one, less common: adding a bit of vanilla to oatmeal.

I'm not thinking well, but there must be others.

Maybe someone who wants to add some vanilla flavor to a (sugarless) drink?

Posted by: t | Nov 30, 2005 2:25:16 AM

I am just so impressed that the simple topic of vanilla could inspire so many comments. Wow! Ice Ice Baby!

Posted by: jaime | Nov 30, 2005 8:35:39 AM

Jaime... It's all about information. There's a ton of useful information walking around inside people's heads, and most are more than willing to share it is someone bothers to ask. When I raise a topic here it usually means it is of interest to me... and that I have some interesting information about it... but also that I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a world of useful info that others can bring to the discussion. This was one of those cases. I [heart] my readers.

Posted by: David | Nov 30, 2005 8:47:20 AM


that's nice of you. Does that mean you're not too fond of vanilla extract, then?

If you want to bake brownies but omit sugar, use the seeds. They're so small, you'd never tell the difference. Or, like you guessed, take vanilla sugar. Or infuse sweetener with avanilla bean shell (am trying right now and looks good).
For custards, take the seeds, and if you don't want them to show in the finished desert, pass the custard through a fine mesh sieve.
Vanilla to oatmeal: I like sweet oatmeal, so I'd either take infused...well, you guess that.
Vanilla flavour to a sugarless drink...take infused sweetener.

But really, I have added my ideas to this discussion not to demonstrate that extract is bad or to give a contra for contra's sake; I'll gladly leave that to others, if need be.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Dec 2, 2005 6:51:00 PM

mademoiselle a.,

The topic simply intrigues me. I don't dislike extract, as long as it is pure extract, and without corn syrup or the like added.

I've enjoyed seeing on cooking shows custards being made and then strained.

I like real vanilla ice cream with vanilla bean pieces.

I wouldn't think to put seeds in brownies; I think I'd tell the difference, be bothered by the seeds.

When I mentioned sugarless drink, I did not mean otherwise sweetened.

What precisely do you mean by "sweetener"? I am guessing from context you mean something as opposed to sugar, probably an artificial sweetener in sugar-like form, is that right?

Using vanilla doesn't necessarily mean I'll be using sugar. Other examples of which I've thought: adding to plain yogurt, adding to plain soymilk (a candidate for the unsweetened drink category), and using in dough (made unsweetened hamentashen dough once).

I guess there are times that call for extract, most notably when something is unsweetened, especially unsweetened by sugar, and for expediency/ease.

Posted by: t | Dec 4, 2005 12:46:22 PM

Love your blog.
I split my beans before putting them in the vodka or alcohol.

Be well and safe.

Posted by: ES in JM | Jun 27, 2007 5:41:38 PM

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