Extracting the Truth: Adventures in Vanilla

Disclaimer:  I’ve said it before, but I will say it again.  No one pays me or gives me anything to say nice stuff about any product.  But, in the interest of full disclosure, I did receive some of the products in this blog post as a prize from a company.  The company is Rodelle and I won the 2013 Rodelle Challenge for my funniest baking story.  I submitted my Passive Aggressive Gingerbread blog entry and was selected as a grand prize winner which included a new Kitchenaid Stand Mixer (which I have promised to my mother) and a years supply of Rodelle products.  So, the Rodelle Vanillas I tested  and discussed below were not purchased but were given to me as part of my contest winnings.  See the end of this post for a link to Rodelle’s web page.  I don’t receive any additional ad revenue or other benefit from including a link to their website.  I just thought you might like to check them out since I did include several of their products in my taste test.

I have a lot of vanilla.  First of all, everyone should have a fairly decent amount of vanilla because…yum.  And you put vanilla in all kinds of things, even if they aren’t specifically “vanilla.”  For example, when was the last time you made a chocolate recipe that didn’t call for a splash of vanilla extract?  And vanilla is so versatile.  It goes with everything.  It’s the baking equivalent of the little black dress.  You can dress it up, dress it down, go from wedding to funeral, it’s perfectly vanilla.  It’s a blank canvas perfect for featuring your favorite fruits and spices.  But it’s also simple and clean and can stand up on its own and hold down the show when you want it to.  It’s vanilla.

The contestants lined up to face off in the battle of the vanilla extracts!

The contestants lined up to face off in the battle of the vanilla extracts!

I came into a LOT of vanilla.  Someone took advantage of a trip to a big box store with a friend who has a membership to such a place to buy the economy size bottle of the grocery store grade vanilla extract some time ago during an overzealous baking streak.  But then I became aware of high quality vanilla extracts and purchased one from one of those hoity toity kitchen stores in the mall that I cannot get enough of.  And then a friend brought me back a GIANT bottle of vanilla from Mexico.  And finally, I won this contest and Rodelle sent me vanilla beans and vanilla paste and vanilla extract and vanilla flavor and so one day recently, I gathered up all my vanilla and looked to see what my inventory included and I realized that I we had a serious vanilla epidemic going on here.

While a vanilla epidemic isn’t a bad thing, I felt odd having so many choices and not knowing which I liked best.  I mean, I’d much rather have a vanilla epidemic than a flu epidemic to contend with.  After all, a vanilla epidemic includes delicious desserts.  Since you are supposed to starve the flu, there aren’t any snacks and so that is why a vanilla epidemic is better.  It’s like winning the epidemic lottery.  But even with such a fun epidemic brewing in my pantry, I knew I had to think fast and start finding delicious ways to use up this vanilla.  But before I started gifting desserts and extracts to my favorite baker friends, I wanted to do a taste test.  I wanted to compare them in a blind taste test to see if I had a favorite or if I could even tell the difference.  I pretend I have a good palate for the benefit of my giant ego but the truth is that I couldn’t be sure that I could reliably tell the difference between toilet water and high quality vanilla.  In the interest of not causing one of those less desirable epidemics, I didn’t include toilet water in the blind taste test though so we’ll just assume that my palate is at least that good.  But I did test all my vanillas and the results might surprise you.  They surprised me.

The contestants are (from left to right in the photo above):

Contestant #1:  La Vencedora Pure Vanilla purchased in Texas by my dear friend Jackie as a gift for pet sitting.  If you saw what her cats did to her carpet on the last trip she went on, you’d agree that I should have bought her a bottle of something instead of the other way around….and it probably should have been tequila.  Also, if you’re going to purchase vanilla from Mexico, you need to look to be sure it is free of coumarin which is known to cause liver or kidney failure sometimes in high concentrations.

Check to ensure Mexican vanillas are coumarin free.

Check to ensure Mexican vanillas are coumarin free.


Contestant #2 is McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract purchased at a big box type grocery store.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve clearly had that bottle for a while so it may not have been as fresh as the other bottles.

Contestant #3 is Rodelle Organic Vanilla Extract won as part of the 2013 Rodelle Challenge.

Contestant #4 is Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla purchased at William Sonoma.

Contestant #5 is Rodelle Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract won as part of the 2013 Rodelle Challenge.

Contestant #6 is Rodelle Vanilla Flavor won as part of the 2013 Rodelle Challenge.

Now, in testing vanilla, I needed a simple recipe that really let the vanilla shine on its own.  I couldn’t risk it being overshadowed by richer flavors.  I decided on an old standby simple recipe for vanilla pudding.  I divided the recipe into six parts and then put a teaspoon of vanilla in each one which is more vanilla extract than the recipe would have called for but since the entire point was to taste the vanilla, I was okay with this excess of deliciousness.  In order to hide the results from myself so I wouldn’t be swayed by knowing which was which, I went to great lengths to ensure my methodology resulted in a study that was blind even to me. I won’t go into too many details but suffice it to say that it may have involved a couple cocktails and apparently it worked.  By the time I finished, I couldn’t remember which vanilla I put where and was relieved I had decided to make myself a cheat sheet before we started.

Now, here’s the thing.  For the purposes of results, I had to choose one I liked best and one I liked least.  And we used up every spoon in the house trying to taste test without double dipping and then turned them over and used spoon handles.  The amount of vanilla pudding consumed in this house in just a few minutes was honestly….epic.  But I have to be honest.  Even the one I deemed “least likable” was delicious.  I mean, the differences were slight and subtle and I didn’t taste any that I didn’t like.  It was like trying to choose between Bradley Cooper and and Ryan Gosling.  I’d be pretty happy to be tasting staring at either one of them.  Of the vanillas I tested,  there was not a Steve Buscemi in the bunch.  And, I was pleased to find out that some of them were remarkably easy to discern from others while some were so similar that it was very hard to pick out which was which.

The truth was that it ended up being a bit of a tie.  The vanilla that had the most distinctive taste and was the most easily detected was the La Vencedora Pure Vanilla from Mexico.  It had a distinctively different flavor that the Madagascar vanillas and I was very surprised to discover that the difference was clear.  However, neither roommate nor I could decide if we liked it better or worse than the others.  It was just different and still delicious.  It was definitely a winner for both being delicious and being different.  I decided to “tie” it with the two vanillas we decided were the best.  And so, tied for first place with La Vencedora are (please insert appropriate drumroll here by beating on your desk or a nearby friend):

A tie between Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla and Rodelle Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract.  In fact, the truth is that Joanne and I tasted like a million times and couldn’t tell them apart AT ALL before we ran out of pudding.

The winners were impossible to tell apart.

The winners were impossible to tell apart.

As for how the other vanillas performed, I was slightly surprised to find that to my uneducated palate, the McCormick Vanilla just slightly edged out the Rodelle Vanilla Flavor.  Truthfully, I think this is because the extracts just seem to be a little stronger flavor than the vanilla flavor was.  But as I said before, this was like choosing between Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper.  Both are tasty.  But it is nice to know that if one needs to cut costs on some heavy duty baking, a big box store won’t completely ruin the quality of your final product unless you’re serving someone with a Gordon Ramsay attitude and palate to go with it.  However, given the choice, I’d be more likely to order from Rodelle because not only is their product delicious, but it does also come in larger bottles and I’ve had the most wonderful experiences dealing with them.  Plus, their other baking products mean that if I have to order vanilla, I’ll be able to order several other extracts that they have and some of those are honestly considerably more difficult to find in my local grocery stores.

The vanilla that I liked the least was actually Rodelle’s Organic Vanilla.  I found this surprising.  The next day I smelled the organic next to the Madagascar Vanilla and realized that they do actually smell very different and my guess is that it’s a different alcohol they use to extract the vanilla flavor (but again, this is just conjecture).  The smell of the organic smelled more like alcohol to me than the Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla did.  But once again, let me remind you, that this is a choice between super hot rich guy and super hot rich guy.  You won’t go wrong with either of these and if eating organic is really important to you, then I would say that the organic vanilla is definitely worth it.  And, I haven’t seen any organic vanilla extracts in my local market so Rodelle is definitely filling a void here with their Organic Vanilla Extract.

I used different sizes and shapes of glasses to keep track of which vanilla was which during the blind tasting.

I used different sizes and shapes of glasses to keep track of which vanilla was which during the blind tasting.

So, you might wonder what I have been doing with my plethora of vanilla since I still have so much to use up.  Well, I made a few batches of ice cream.  And, I finally made something I’ve wanted to try for a very long time.  I made homemade marshmallows.  And, let me assure you, they were far more successful than I’d even hoped.  they tasted like sweet vanilla pillows of delicious and when roasted, they melt so perfectly that I will have a hard time ever going back to store bought marshmallows again.  If you want to ruin store bought marshmallows forever, I encourage you to head over to one of my favorite blogs, The Smitten Kitchen ( http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2009/06/springy-fluffy-marshmallows/ ) because I followed her advice to a tee and I couldn’t have been happier with the results.  Now that I know they’re successful, I plan to try to make my own homemade version of a pinwheel soon.  For those of you that don’t know, a pinwheel has a cake-like chocolate cookie with marshmallow on top and the entire thing is encased in chocolate kind of like a candy bar.  I have to figure out how to melt chocolate so that it will harden again but hopefully we’ll sort this out very soon because pinwheels are one of my favorite desserts and these marshmallows deserve to be part of my favorite desserts.

If you’re stopping in and you have a favorite vanilla recipe that I should try, please do share it.  Even with all the ice cream and marshmallows and pudding around here, we still have A LOT of vanilla.

And finally, if you’d like to order yourself some Rodelle Vanilla (or any of their other products which I’m still taste testing as I go), you can find them at http://www.rodellekitchen.com/.


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