One of the featured products in Molly Yeh's box this month is Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract made by Nielsen-Massey. As I began brain storming ideas for this post, I asked myself a simple question... why do we use vanilla extract in baking? I never question whether or not it will be an ingredient in my baked goods. I always have it on hand. But why? Does it really make a difference in the taste of the final product? Does the quality differ from brand to brand?
Well, I found that the answer is yes! The role of vanilla in baking is similar to the role of salt in savory dishes. It has the unique ability to heighten and enhance all the other flavor profiles in the recipe. Without vanilla extract, your cakes and cookies would taste bland. If I'm going to the trouble to bake from scratch, it better be worth my time and it should taste good.
Here's an fun fact....pure vanilla extract is made from the pods or beans of the vanilla vine which is a type of orchid. (It is the only edible fruit bearing member of the orchid family.) Nielsen-Massey sources their vanilla from primary vanilla growing countries - Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti - where the beans are harvested once a year. I assumed there was the additional component of Bourbon in the extract included in the box, but the name actually comes from the geographic reference to the Bourbon Islands - Madagascar, Comoro, Reunion, Seychelles and Mauritius. Like wines, the vanilla from these different countries has it's own unique flavors and characteristics due to the differences in climate and soil.
Do yourself and your baked goods a favor and steer clear of "imitation" vanilla. Always use the real deal. In addition to pure vanillas, Nielsen-Massey offers a wide range of pure flavor extracts, pastes, powders, sugars and whole beans. If you need any inspo, browse Nielsen-Massey's recipe section.