Home cooks and industrial bakers alike share the same dilemma:
“Do I use extract, emulsion, powder, or syrup?”
Here is a simplified breakdown of vanilla flavoring to help you choose which best suits your baking needs.
In all food, there is a “carrier” that binds to the flavoring compounds, distributes them evenly, and hits your taste buds with flavor! Most flavoring compounds, in their straight form, are far too potent for the human palette. The carrier serves to dissolve the compound, rendering it consumable.
Vanilla beans have over 400 different known flavoring components (wow!); the most prominent of which are vanillin, ethyl vanillin, and vanillic acid.
This trifecta (with some other less prominent components), creates a complex flavor symphony that cannot be artificially replicated. (Sorry if this bursts your bubble on imitation vanilla.)
Traditional Vanilla Extract
The most common method of extracting the flavor from the vanilla bean (which is brown- sorry if this bursts your bubble on clear vanilla extract) uses alcohol and water. But don’t worry! The alcohol is evaporated when baked or cooked, leaving behind only the rich vanilla flavor.
Powdered vanilla use dextrose or sucrose (both natural sugars) to carry the flavor components. These products are not only alcohol free, but also have the consistency of powdered sugar and have a sweetness that makes them ideal for condiments and crusts.
The final carrier for flavors are sugar syrups. Sugar syrups effectively extract the flavor offering sweetness and a viscous consistency. The most common product on the shelf that use sugar in the extraction process is vanilla paste or puree; offering the ease of vanilla extract in a product that also showcases delicate black specks —vanilla seeds—which are beautiful additions to gourmet desserts like crème brulee.
*Note that the vanilla bean itself is always an excellent flavoring option if you prefer to be alcohol and sugar free!