May 7, 2024 - Written by: Nancy Pollard
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Leaving McCormick

McCormick's vanilla extract image via AmazonWhen I stumbled onto the history of Vanilla and the debt that is owed to Edmond Albius, I had not thought about how imitation and alternative vanillas were developed. Or even how a low-priced vanilla was produced, since the pods themselves are expensive. I remember that the only vanilla in our house was the tiny bottle with the red and white label marked McCormick. In fact, in my childhood I assumed that McCormick had invented vanilla. Truth didn’t dawn until I cooked with Mary Bond, a most redoubtable woman and one of the few Americans to graduate from a three-year course at the Cordon Bleu in Paris during the 1950s. I watched her split open a vanilla bean and scrape the little seeds with a paring knife as she was preparing Charlotte Russe.  It was a revelation in procedure and taste. 

The actual vanillin compound is produced naturally in vanilla beans and can be reproduced synthetically in several ways, some more appetizing than others. But the complexity and density of vanilla aroma and flavor has not been duplicated in the synthetic versions. In the vanilla pod, there are over 250 flavor and aroma  components – vanillin is merely the most prodigious. At this point, synthetic vanillas will give you a one-note flavor and perhaps some aroma, but you will not get the different layers of flavor and aroma that you taste when using a Tahitian vanilla bean or one of the Planifolia types. 

Do It Yourself

I have experimented with making my own complex extract by immersing vanilla beans in an inexpensive (usually) cognac – onehomemade vanilla extracts from the website everydaypie. that is pleasant to drink.  Others have used bourbon, because that whiskey already contains a vanilla component that enriches the resulting extract. Although many recipes say that after 6 to 8 weeks you will have a terrific homemade vanilla extract, I found that after the two months what I got was a vanilla-flavored cognac. It takes a lot longer to really produce an extract – over six months to a year. You will see that the liquid turns dark over time – a good sign. An excellent discussion on making your own vanilla can be found at  – her photo shows the progression of homemade vanilla extract. And she too feels that while you can use an inexpensive vodka, taste it first to see if it’s one that is enjoyable to drink. 

Since extracts are made from macerating a flavoring agent in alcohol, you need to pick a liquor that is at least 35% or 70 Proof. Our FDA also stipulates that 35% alcohol is needed as a medium to earn their approval as an extract. You will need just an ounce  (about 4-6 beans) of vanilla beans per 8 ounces of liquor. Vodka apparently is the usual choice, but as you just read, brandies and whiskeys will add more complex flavors to the vanilla. 

You can also use grain alcohol, which is basically how many pure vanilla extracts are produced. That said, I have read that a grain alcohol like Everclear leaves a powerful bite — particularly in desserts that are not baked.  Once you have measured the alcohol of choice to fit the bottles you have chosen, the beans must be split along the length and cut so that they will be completely submerged.  Once they are submerged, your bottles are ready to be capped and stored in the dark at room temperature.

I used only Grade A beans, because they had around  a 30% moisture content. But I have read from other websites on making vanilla that Grade B beans have the advantage of being cheaper and delivering a more concentrated flavor, albeit less complex than Grade A. I have also read one can use the same vanilla beans to make a second batch of extract before discarding them.  I have never tried this; I have dried and cut them up to flavor sugar instead. 

Tricks Of The Trade

Synthetic vanilla produces extracts at a fraction of the cost of using vanilla beans and comes from some intriguing sources. An infrequently used source in the past was actually from the anal glands of beavers – Castoreum. It is not in your vanilla ice cream, contrary to some screaming social media images and pronouncements. This practice arose in part due to the flourishing beaver trade in the US during the 19th century.  (Think of those tall hats that Lincoln wore). In fact, the beaver almost became extinct from the rage for top hats.  That essence is now rare and expensive and offers a note of leather aroma in some perfumes such as Emeraude. Imitation vanilla now is primarily sourced from similarly flavored compounds from wood pulp and petrochemicals. Not terribly appetizing, but better than beaver butts.

Back to the McCormick’s vanilla of my childhood. At some point McCormick added corn syrup to its vanilla extract to make it have a sweeter taste, since the quality of the vanilla beans did not produce enough vanilla flavor. Apparently in their current marketing, they have removed it from their extracts marked “Pure.” As with all major food corporations, they keep a keen eye on consumer trends, and now their vanilla extracts are marked with such homilies as “Proud To Support Farmers” and “Non GMO” and “Organic” on their labels.  And they pronounce on the pure vanilla extract that there is no corn syrup. In fact, here in Italy, it is not allowed anyway. At this time no vanilla bean has been genetically modified, so that’s pretty much meaningless. “Organic” in the US has become a loosely used term under the current USDA rulings, but McCormick actually has been a leader in securing better lives for its vanilla farmers, as you can read in this article from Coporate Knights, a journal advising companies on how to move toward creating a more sustainable global economy. 

Beware The Tonka Bean

Another enhanced vanilla extract that has aroused a fair amount of controversy is one sold at incredibly low prices when you visit Mexico, is enriched with  tonka bean extractives..tonka bean image from Wikipedia Apparently it is extremely flavorful, but it is not allowed to be resold in the US. In 1954 this type of vanilla was banned here because, when tested, it contained high levels of coumarin, a close relative to Warfarin, a powerful blood thinner. Coumarin is thought to be toxic to the liver and kidneys and causes
thinning of the blood. For people already taking a blood thinner, the additional coumarin could make coagulation much more difficult. Tonka bean extracts were once used in US tobaccos to enhance the experience of smoking, but it was banned there as well.  Tonka beans are probably best left to the perfume industry. 

It is a bit ironic that in a country from which vanilla pods originated, artificial vanilla is so prevalent.  The answer is simple – the general population in Mexico cannot afford the vanilla extract made from their own vanilla beans. As you can read in last week’s post, the cultivation of vanilla beans is accomplished by low-wage farmers and workers who are managed by larger companies which have the access to financial investment and equipment to finish the expensive process and sell the product. But in all its iterations, vanilla remains supreme as a flavor profile. Just ask my vanilla-obsessed husband. 


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