In many ways, gourmet vanilla extract is a lot like a fine whiskey; its flavor depends on a precise mix of top-quality ingredients and long, slow aging.
If your only experience with vanilla extract has been the low-cost imitation vanilla extracts found on grocery store shelves, trying gourmet extract will almost certainly be an eye-opening experience. Extracts made from the seeds of orchid bean pods have a creaminess, smoothness, and depth and complexity of flavor that no imitation, no matter how skillful, can match.
How pure vanilla extract is made
Like everything else about natural vanilla, making it into extract is a time and labor intensive process. It starts with determining the right mix of beans. The most commonly used commercial vanilla bean is the Bourbon bean, which is produced by the vanilla planifolia orchid. Bourbon beans are grown in Madagascar, Indonesia, and to a lesser extent in other tropical regions.
Beans from the vanilla planifolia orchid that are grown in Mexico are known as Mexican beans, and though they are similar to Bourbon beans they tend to have a smoother flavor and a somewhat spicier fragrance.
The other commonly used commercial vanilla bean is the Tahitian bean. Tahitian vanilla developed from the vanilla planifolia orchid, but has been recognized as a separate species. Tahitian beans typically have a higher content of both oil and water, along with a fruitier fragrance.
Most producers use a proprietary mix of commercially available vanilla beans, often coming from a variety of regions.
To make extract, the beans are first chopped and then exposed to a combination of ethyl alcohol and water in special extraction tanks. The alcohol-water mix is percolated through the chopped beans for at least 48 hours, following which the mix is held in the tanks to age and mellow. The aging period, which varies from producer to producer, can last as long as several weeks.
Other ingredients, including sugar, coloring, and stabilizers, may be added to the extract. After aging the mix is filtered and bottled.
Natural Vanilla Flavor - a no-alcohol option
For those who prefer a product that doesn't use alcohol, a natural product known as natural vanilla flavor is an option. Natural vanilla flavoring is made similarly to natural vanilla extract, but with either no or very little (less than 3%) alcohol. It generally has a glycerine or propylene glycol base and the end product is generally somewhat darker and thicker than gourmet vanilla extract.