Vanilla (bean) vs (ethyl) Vanillin – Food chemistry deep dive

Making vanilla ice cream (or any other vanilla flavoured muffin/cookie/etc) always causes a dilemma. Should you use a (natural) vanilla bean, an extract or artificial vanilla (= vanillin)? One clearly is more expensive than the other, and they look different, but are they actually different?

Even though there often isn’t a right and wrong on which to use, there definitely are differences. In order to explain this properly, we’ll be using some great food chemistry!

What is vanilla?

First, let’s take a step back and have a look at the two terms thrown in here. First of all: what is vanilla?

Vanilla is a flavour, made from the vanilla plant. On this plant vanilla beans grow. By processing these beans in the correct way they become these dark, dry vanilla pods you can buy in the supermarket. Actually, fresh vanilla beans don’t have the characteristic flavour yet, several processes, which may take several months have to take place for the flavour to develop.

Inside these processed pods sits a complex mixture of molecules. All these molecules together make a very complex flavour, called vanilla! In other words, vanilla isn’t just one molecule, instead, you need a lot of different molecules to make vanilla.

Using vanilla (beans)

The vanilla flavour sits in the vanilla bean and when you use a vanilla bean in your cooking you try to get as much of this flavour out of the bean. In a lot of cases when vanilla beans are used in a recipe, the recipe will say to soak the vanilla beans in a liquid for some time. This serves exactly that: to get as much flavour out of the bean as possible and get out all those different molecules that make up the vanilla flavour.

Nevertheless, in a lot of cases you won’t be able to get all of the flavour of the vanilla bean pod. Either because you couldn’t scrape out all the powder or you simply didn’t have enough time to soak out all the flavour.

Vanilla extract

That vanilla flavour can also be extracted before you start your cooking or baking though! This is what’s called a vanilla extract. The extract consists of a liquid (generally some type of alcohol) and the vanilla bean. The vanilla bean seeps in the alcohol for quite some time and all the vanilla flavour will sit in the liquid.

The reason alcohol is used for these extracts is because most of the vanilla flavour molecules dissolve quite well in alcohol, at least a lot better than in water. By using the alcohol, more flavour can be extracted, more easily.

You can make vanilla extract at home, but you can often buy it in a store as well. Commercial extracts have generally been filtered though, so you don’t see the bean in the liquid anymore. Nevertheless, these types of extracts have been made with actual vanilla beans.

Since the flavour can be concentrated and preserved better, these extracts are often quite a bit cheaper than vanilla beans themselves.

vanilla-extract-ready-for-ripening
Vanilla extract in the making.

What is vanillin?

Now that we’ve covered the different vanilla’s (bean vs. extract), let’s dive into the vanillins.

Despite there being so many molecules that make up the final vanilla flavour, there is one molecule which has a very large role in the vanilla flavour profile. This molecule is called vanillin, see a chemical drawing below. Even though vanillin is only a part of the complete vanilla flavour, it is a very important one.

vanillin
The vanillin molecule. Source: Wikipedia

Making vanillin

When vanilla extract is made, vanillin is extracted as well. However, vanillin can also be made without any vanilla pods coming into play. Several chemical processes have been developed to make this vanillin molecule in a cheaper and more efficient way than using a rare vanilla plant.

Ethylvanillin vs. vanillin

Since vanilla and vanillin are both quite scarce, people have been looking for cheaper alternatives for decades. Hence, you might have heard of ethylvanillin as well. This isn’t the ‘regular’ vanillin which is present in vanilla. It is a slightly different molecule, as you can see below.

Ethylvanillin is an artificial molecule, it does not appear in nature naturally, whereas vanillin does. It also happens that ethylvanillin is a lot stronger in flavour than vanillin. Therefore, when using ethylvanillin even less of the molecule is required to get the same intensity of vanillin flavour.

ethylvanillin
The ethylvanillin molecule, it has one extra carbon atom in the chain on the right side. Source: Wikipedia

Which is best?

Is it best to use articial vanilla extract (=vanillin), pure vanilla extract (whether home made or store bought) or should we always use the (expensive) vanilla bean?

It mostly depends on your reasons for choosing. It you don’t like artificial stuff, don’t choose the artificial one. But, if you purely go for flavour, don’t worry about it too much. All of them are often just as good, especially in cooked/baked stuff, it really depends on your preference.

Serious Eats did a taste test and found that in most cases, differences cannot be tasted in the final product. When vanilla extract is heated to high temperatures (for instance in cookies/cakes), a lot of the other flavour molecules that make up the vanilla flavour seem to break down. Thus, most of the flavour that’s left, is actually vanillin.

Where are you from?

That also greatly influences your preference for vanilla type. I, being European, am always amazed by the highly artificial vanillin flavour in muffins and cupcakes in the US. It’s a matter of what you’re used to, just as much as how you use it.

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