vanilla beans

Vanilla Beans vs. Vanillin – Science of Vanilla Flavor

Vanilla is one of the most widely used flavors globally. Cakes, cookies, ice cream – I have yet to come across an ice cream shop that doesn’t sell vanilla ice cream – often contain it.

Natural vanilla starts out as a bean, in the tropics. However, a lot of vanilla-flavored dishes never ‘see’ a bean. These beans are one of the most expensive spices in the world, and there’s not enough of them to fulfill our global cravings for vanilla flavor. So, we humans have come up with artificial alternatives.

That wouldn’t have been possible if chemists hadn’t realized what vanilla flavor is made up of. But what’s truly the difference between a vanilla bean and an artificial vanilla flavoring? There are a lot of chemical similarities, as well as differences. We’ll try to uncover the differences and similarities between vanilla beans, vanilla extracts, (ethyl) vanillin, and artificial vanilla flavors.

What are vanilla beans?

Natural vanilla starts out as a pod, often called a bean, on an orchid. These orchids can only grow in select regions of the world. They need a lot of manual labor and attention to thrive.

A freshly harvested vanilla pod is green. It doesn’t yet have a rich vanilla flavor. It does contain a lot of precursors, molecules that can be converted into flavorful components. For this to happen, the bean needs to be processed further.

Processing of the beans

First, the beans are ‘killed‘. Remember that most fruits and vegetables are alive after harvest, they respire. You want to turn off the processes that keep the bean alive. This is commonly done using heat, for instance, leaving them in the hot sun, or using a quick hot water bath. This starts to break down the texture of the beans, which makes it easier for reactions to happen that free up flavors.

Next up, the beans are cured. During curing, the beans are stored at high temperatures (45-65°C / 113-149°F) and high humidity. Under these conditions a wide range of reactions and processes take place. It’s where the characteristic flavors and aromas are formed. Also, the bean turns brown during this step.

Enzymes play an important role for developing flavor. They can ‘cut’ molecules into smaller pieces, which sets the molecules responsible for flavor and aroma free!

To ensure the beans can be stored, beans are dried. The lower moisture content prevents the growth of spoilage microorganisms. It also stops various chemical processes, to maintain vanilla’s flavor.

Vanilla beans contain >200 aroma components!

The resulting cured and dried beans are highly complex, very aromatic spices. They contain over 200 volatile components. These are molecules that easily evaporate and enter your nose. They play a key role in defining flavor. But, there’s more. Vanilla beans contain sugars, amino acids, fats, and more. All of them contribute to creating a rich, complex vanilla flavor.

It’s the interplay between all these components that makes vanilla such a beloved spice. Nevertheless, chemists have since discovered that there is one molecule especially that makes something taste like vanilla.

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vanilla beans
Vanilla beans

There’s no vanilla without vanillin

Even though vanilla beans are very complex, chemists were able to identify one molecule in vanilla that is especially important. They appropriately called this molecule: vanillin.

The vanillin content is heavily influenced by how well a bean was cured and processed after harvest. A good quality bean can contain up to approximately 3% vanillin.

Vanillin content is crucial for the strength and quality of flavor of a vanilla bean.

Vanillin is not unique to vanilla

Even though vanilla beans do contain a lot of vanillin, they aren’t the only ones. A lot of other spices, as well as fruits, contain small amounts of vanillin. The vanillin serves as just one of many aromatic molecules, building the overall flavor profile.

The Structure of Vanillin

In order to try and make vanillin in other ways, chemists had to identify the structure of vanillin. It’s quite a simple molecule and is closely related to e.g. eugenol and cinnamaldehyde. These two molecules are key players in the flavors of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and more.

vanillin
Vanillin (from: Wikipedia commons)

The chemical formula of vanillin is C8H8O3. Its chemical name is: 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde.

Ethylvanillin – Vanillin’s powerhouse cousin

People have been looking for cheaper alternatives for vanilla for decades. In this search, another vanilla flavor powerhouse was discovered: ethyl vanillin.

Ethylvanillin has an even stronger vanilla flavor. However, it doesn’t appear naturally and when used is produced synthetically only.

ethylvanillin
Ethylvanillin: notice its similarity to vanillin. Source: Wikipedia

How to add vanilla flavor to your food

Now we know where the flavor from vanilla comes from. So how do you get it into your food?

Adds the seeds directly

The easiest way to add vanilla flavoring to your food is by adding the seeds of the pod/bean directly. The seeds sit in the center of the vanilla bean. By cutting open the pod and scraping the insides clean with a knife you collect the seeds. The seeds contain that complex vanilla flavor.

However, this is also the most expensive way. You miss out on any flavors that are left in the firm part of the bean.

Soak the vanilla bean in your dish

To not let any flavors in the outside of the bean go to waste, recipes may call for soaking the vanilla bean. While soaking the bean in your liquid, flavor molecules from the bean will migrate into the liquid. As a result, your liquid takes on the rich vanilla flavor.

When making vanilla ice cream you may be asked to soak a vanilla bean in the milk and cream. By soaking it for some time, the flavor molecules can seep into your milk & cream. This process does take some time!

Use a vanilla extract if you don’t have time

In order to extract as much flavor out of a vanilla bean as possible, it’s best to take your time. The migration of molecules out of the bean doesn’t happen very quickly. If you only have a short amount of time, you may still leave a lot of vanilla flavor in that bean.

Luckily, you can use a shortcut: vanilla extract.

Manufacturers of vanilla extract have already taken the time that’s necessary to extract all those flavors from the bean. Furthermore, vanilla extract tends to be made with alcohol-containing liquids such as rum. The alcohol helps to extract even more flavor. A lot of the flavor molecules in vanilla prefer sitting in alcohol over water.

Extracting flavors from spices uses a lot of chemistry. The science of extraction is a discipline by itself.

If you use vanilla extract. be aware that all flavors have already been extracted from the bean. As such, it is best not to extensively heat your food with this extract, unless it’s the final baking step. Try adding the vanilla extract as late as possible to prevent losing some of those important volatile components!

freshly made vanilla extract
Vanilla extract in the making.

Replicating vanilla flavor with vanillin

If you are looking for a cheaper way to add vanilla flavor to a food, and don’t need the complex flavor profile that natural vanilla offers, you can use just vanillin.

If you recall, the vanillin molecule is the star player in vanilla flavor. Without vanillin, vanilla wouldn’t taste like vanilla.

Vanillin can be made without using any natural vanilla. It can be made from wood pulp, eugenol, or yeasts can be used to make vanillin. These methods are all (a lot) cheaper than growing and processing natural vanilla.

Want to learn more about the different processes used to make vanillin molecules? We’ve discussed them in far greater detail here.

Artificial vanilla flavors are often made with just vanillin.

Which vanilla flavoring is best?

So, to give a product that vanilla flavor, you have a lot of options. But, which is ‘best’? Should you use the vanilla bean, an extract, or maybe just the vanillin?

There is no one single correct answer here. It all depends on what you’re making and the role of vanilla.

Is vanilla the shining star of a dish? Then you might be interested in that complex, layered flavor. Using a vanilla bean or a high-quality extract.

Are you just adding a hint of vanilla to a cookie or a cake? A cheaper (artificial) option may work just as well here*.

Overall, it depends on your (and your customer’s) preference! If you’re used to a strong artificial vanilla flavor, you might prefer it over a more delicate, subtle flavor. You might be surprised how big differences between consumers and countries are, despite it being one of the most popular flavors globally!

*Serious Eats did a taste test and found that often differences cannot be tasted in the final product, especially for baked goods!

References

Daphna Havkin-Frenkel, James C. French, Nicoletta M. Graft, Danny M. Joel, Fulya E. Pak, Chaim Frenkel, Interrelation of Curing and Botany in Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) Bean, Proc. XXVI IHC – Future for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Acta Hort. 629, ISHS 200, link

Daphna Havkin-Frenkel, Faith C. Belanger, Handbook of Vanilla Science and Technology, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, link

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2 Comments

  1. Ground vanilla powder is very underrated. Scraping the seeds out only gets so much flavor. Dried and ground whole beans offers impressive flavor, especially in baked goods. In a side-by-side test, I found it was way better than extract. You can do it homemade (have a pepper grinder with just vanilla inside it!) or buy it pre-made.

    • I haven’t tried that yet! Do you find the grinder works well on the vanilla? I tend to have softer/flexible vanilla beans which aren’t that easy to break up.

      Thanks for the addition 🙂

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