Vanilla: The Great Seductress!

Oct 13, 2020

Scientific knowledge is not a set of certainties, but explanations.” (Charles Sanders Peirce)

*Discover vanilla’s COMPLEMENTARY INGREDIENTS at the end of this article (sharing the same dominant molecules) to cook with vanilla along with WINES and COMPLEMENTARY EAUX-DE-VIE which match well with vanilla to achieve harmony with dishes dominated by vanilla or its complementary ingredients.

We have developed a sensual relationship with vanilla, which is used frequently because it is considered an aphrodisiac. It develops a complex fragrance made up of several hundred different aromatic molecules. The result can be woody, floral, vegetal, or even animal in tone. These molecules can include notes of cocoa, tobacco, licorice, dried fruit, cloves, honey, caramel, smoke, wet earth, butter, and leather.

Like saffron and cardamom, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices and can sell for up to 2,000 euros per kilo (compared to 10 euros for synthetic vanilla). The cost explains why almost all the vanilla used today is artificial rather than natural vanilla. 

Vanilla for premature babies!

Researchers have discovered that when vanilla scents are dispersed in the incubators of premature babies, its fragrances help them relax and fight for survival. The aroma of vanilla also has a soothing effect on humans by reducing their panic reflexes. Therefore, the smell and taste of vanilla can improve our mood by giving us a feeling of well-being. A journey on the aromatic trail of a great seductress.

Journey on the aromatic trail of this great seductress

It is important to know that scientists have identified more than 200 aromatic molecules in the vanilla bouquet after the pods have been ripened and dried. Phenolic compounds (wines and eaux-de-vie are also extraordinarily rich in these compounds), including vanillin (with a vanilla scent), are especially present. Phenolic compounds are generated by the browning reaction during the drying of vanilla beans.

During this operation, the flavours become richer, amplified by the increased amino acids, which are expressed as umami, the fifth flavour. The presence of amino acids in vanilla, and therefore umami, can be recognized visually by the appearance of tiny white crystals that develop on the beans as they age. The palate experiences a sensation of fullness, presence, texture, sensuality, and richness, making vanilla the queen of spices.

One of the many properties of vanilla is its buffering effect, used in perfumery, calming the strength of other products that could be too volatile and, therefore, too harsh on the nose.

Winemakers understood this a long time ago when aging their great wines in barrels because oak will release multiple aromatic compounds, including vanillin, with a vanilla aroma. At the end of the 19th century, records show that in tasting notes from wine brokers, some tasters had noticed the obvious charm of Burgundy wines aged in new oak barrels.

Birth of the vanilla scent
Vanillin, a volatile molecule with a scent of vanilla, does not exist initially (or truly little) in the fresh vanilla bean. It appears during the hydrolysis process, which occurs after harvesting, during the ripening of the vanilla beans, or after freezing. These processes allow the release of the free and fragrant vanillin from a glycosylated precursor.

In cuisine, a very spicy dish can also be mellowed by vanilla, just as a very vanilla-flavoured wine could soothe the fire of an extremely hot dish. Vanilla gives “roundness” to any pungent and spicy concoction. It is partly vanilla that calms the bitterness and heat of young cognacs and whiskies during their first years of aging in barrels. 

Coca-Cola’s decision in 1984 to offer a vanilla-flavoured version led to a 10 % increase in worldwide demand – even though the original recipe already used natural vanilla –. Since then, the company has been the world’s largest user of vanillin.

The cosmetics industry uses vanillin extensively in the manufacture of fragrances and other skin and hair care products. Fortunately, natural vanilla is mainly favoured by private individuals, chocolate makers and artisanal ice cream makers, and aspiring cooks and professionals.

Artificial vanillin extract

Some synthetic molecules are even more potent in taste than their natural counterpart. Ethylvanillin has a taste three to four times stronger than pure vanilla! Once synthesized, the molecules are more refined. Ethylvanillin is widely used in the food industry to flavour a multitude of foods and beverages.

About 90 % of the vanillin flavouring used in the United States is artificial, compared to about 50 % in Europe. Vanillin is mainly used in the preparation of ice cream, beverages and chocolate.

Approximately 12,000 tons of vanilla extract is produced annually, of which less than 1 % comes from natural vanilla beans. At $ 15 per kilogram for synthetic vanilla, compared to $ 1,200 to $ 4,000 per kilogram for natural vanilla, this accounts for vanillin’s popularity. And because the molecule is chemically the same as the one found in nature industrially produced vanillin is referred to as a “natural identical” aroma.

In 1874, a German chemist prepared the first artificial synthesis of vanillin from coniferin, extracted from spruce resin. Eugenol, the dominant chemical compound in cloves (see description in the reference book Taste Buds and Molecules), is the main ingredient used in the production and trade of synthetic vanillin today. 

Hence, there is a natural link between vanilla and clove, both in recipes and in wines dominated by one or the other (or even both) of these flavours. Moreover, the oak barrel (see the chapter Oak and the Barrel, in the book Taste Buds and Molecules) gives wines notes of vanilla and clove. 

Other industrial processes for making synthetic vanillin still exist. It is produced either from coniferin, the result of the hydrolysis of lignins from wood industry residues (lignins are also present in the oak of barrels, as well as in the maple water used to make maple syrup), or from ferulic acid, coming from the residual pulp of beets or a process of oxidation of curcumin, extracted from turmeric.

The low production cost of artificial vanilla extract has made it possible to universally popularize the flavour of vanilla, while at the same time imposing ruthless competition on natural vanilla, its cost price being 100 times lower than that of natural vanilla. It is currently estimated that the world production of industrial vanillin is between 12,000 and 15,000 tons per year. 

Tip from the sommelier-cook
“Vanilla Synthesis Recipe”: Why not have fun with a “vanilla synthesis” recipe? Create dishes which include cloves, turmeric and beetroot, all served in harmony with wines aged in new barrels. This way, you harmonize a meal with the ingredients used for the synthesis of vanillin!

Vanilla in wines

In wines, it is mainly ethyl vanillate, an ester, which gives the aromatic note of vanilla to the wine, and not vanillin. Ethyl vanillate, which has a slightly less intense odour than vanillin, appears in the wine after a series of reactions to the vanillin. Being present in the lignin of the wood (its fibrous part), therefore, in the stalk, ethyl vanillate can also appear in certain red wines aged in stainless steel tanks and white wines that are over-pressed.

American oak releases more vanilla and spicy compounds, especially clove (eugenol), than European oak. Since one of the main ingredients of synthetic vanilla is clove, the presence of these two types of compounds in the white oak of American barrels explains the influence of vanilla on the nose of the wines matured in them. You can also make exciting pairings between dishes dominated by either vanilla or cloves and wines aged in American oak barrels.

To create aromatic pairings with wines marked by vanilla (without excess), Spanish vintages matured partly or entirely in American barrels are recommended, whether they come from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro or Jumilla. The same is true for certain New World Merlots. The aroma of vanilla coming from ethyl vanillate is also intensely present. It is characteristic of the aroma of these non-Muscat naturally sweet wines (NSW) matured in an oxidative environment such as banyuls, maury and rivesaltes.

The intense oxidation conditions found during the aging of some NSW (naturally sweet wines) and old oak barrels are responsible for the build-up of this aromatic molecule. The older the wood, the less volatile phenolic compounds it yields. The vanilla aroma is usually present in large quantities in new barrels. But old oak casks allow the appearance and the vital increase of vanillin, then ethyl vanillate. Therefore, vanilla has a critical organoleptic role in the aromatic profile of old non-Muscat NSWs aged in an oxidative environment.

In Cooking

As in perfumery, vanilla used as a base note gives roundness to the olfactory composition and has a buffering effect on other products that would be too volatile and too harsh for the nose. Provided it is used sparingly, it adds depth, warmth and roundness to savoury pork or lobster recipes. Alain Senderens’ “Lobster roasted with vanilla white butter,” created in 1981 at the L’Archestrate restaurant, is an example. Chef Senderens truly demonstrated the flavour-enhancing power of vanilla, which in this recipe magnifies the flavour of roasted lobster. This creation has become a signature dish. It has inspired many, including such great chefs as Alain Passard, Michel Guérard, David Bouley and Wolfgang Puck. These chefs have all subsequently created iconic dishes that use vanilla to enhance the taste of certain foods. Like all volatile compounds, vanilla’s flavours are more soluble in fat and alcohol. Therefore, for maximum flavour, it should be used in creamy and smooth sauces – hence the idea of Senderens’ beurre blanc – and the success of crème anglaise!

According to Jean-Paul Guerlain, the famous perfumer from the house of the same name, Mayotte vanilla is the best and reveals itself perfectly in crème anglaise!

Like turmeric, beetroot and cloves contain good levels of vanillin precursors. The harmony between vanilla-dominated wines and dishes containing any of these three ingredients becomes an exciting and successful path to follow. Wild rice also develops a slight vanilla taste, which makes it an excellent accompaniment when the wine served also develops a vanilla tonality, as does Cabernet Sauvignon. Not to mention that wild rice is also marked by molecules from the pyrazine family, as are Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Maple syrup also often has an aroma of vanilla and goes very well with the sweet bitterness of the tonka bean, which also has hints of vanilla.

Oak barrels develop the scent of vanillin when they are charred before being used. This process explains, in part, the vanilla scents found in wines, whiskies and cognacs. But all foods cooked or smoked over wood fires, such as bread and meat, develop vanilla flavours through aromatic contamination of the smoke released during cooking. Hence this beautiful union between woody wines and grilled meats. 

Aromatic compounds of burnt wood and smoke
When burning wood, whether in a wood oven, a charcoal grill or when preparing oak barrels for aging wines and brandies, many new aromatic compounds become impregnated in the wood and in the smoke that comes out of it. These include furans (with the sweet smell of bread and flowers), lactones (coconut and peach), acetaldehyde (green apple), diacetyl (butter), guaiacol (smoke and spices), vanillin (vanilla), phenols (astringency and smoke), eugenol (clove and vanilla), and syringole (spicy/smoked/vanilla/medicinal).

Interestingly, the aroma of caramel, which is an aldehyde, is molecularly like that of nuts and vanilla. Its signature comes from one aldehyde composed of the same atoms found in nuts, but arranged differently, as is the case with vanilla. These natural aromas make for an exciting union of walnut, caramel and vanilla in desserts and wines marked by this type of scent that unite marvelously with these three ingredients. The trio marries well with wines of the same aromatic nature, such as Jerez, whether Amontillado or Oloroso, as well as non-Muscat naturally sweet wines (NSW), aged for lengthy periods in oak vats.

Tips from the sommelier-cook

Add vanilla to court-bouillon when poaching fish; the flavour will be sweeter, and the harmony will be better with wines that match with vanilla. And why not replace the pastis or the saffron of the bouillabaisse with vanilla?

Finally, it is possible to macerate vanilla in fruit juice for a fruit salad, in alcohol that will be used for cocktails or to deglaze the pan. Wines with a vanilla tone will stand out even more!

And since wines that are too woody, and vanilla-flavoured, usually crash when paired with cheeses, why not “tamper” with vanilla-flavoured olive oil? To do so, use fruity olive oil with sweet, nutty and banana accents, such as Manzanilla Cacerena from Spain. Hang fresh vanilla beans above the oil in a closed carafe (like for truffles). The effect is much more intense and purer than if the vanilla was dipped directly into the oil.

Then, sprinkle the oil lightly on a slice of rustic bread and enjoy your cheese, followed by a sip of oaky wine. By adding this vanilla-scented oil, a natural binder is used to create harmony between the wine and the cheese, whether it is an old, non-Muscat type naturally sweet wine (NSW) aged in an oxidative environment, a dry white or a red.

To complete the marriage with cheese, add unsalted nuts, since vanilla belongs to the same molecular family! Dry wines prefer nuts to fruits, which, because of to their acidity and sweetness, make dry wines harder, whether they are white or red.

Tonka bean; a vanilla twin!

Like vanilla, the tonka bean, which is the kernel of a tropical fruit from a tree in South America and the Caribbean, contains coumarin, expressed in notes of almond, cocoa, flower, vanilla, cut hay, honey, sweet spices and caramel

Coumarin is a lactone, also found in Chinese cinnamon, lavender, angelica, buffalo grass (used to flavor Polish Zubrowka vodka), cloves and, in more discrete amounts, in artificial vanilla extract

Just like vanilla, the tonka bean is in vogue among the great chefs of this world. In cuisine, it is mainly used with desserts to replace vanilla: tonka bean crème brûlée, tonka bean îles flottantes, pear and tonka bean puff pastry.

It should be grated like nutmeg. It is also used for savoury dishes such as fried potatoes, pumpkin or squash soup and fish with tonka bean sauce. 

Vanilla is rich in coumarin, one of the aromatic compounds that contribute to notes of vanilla, found in the tonka bean, angelica, lavender, Chinese cinnamon, artificial vanilla extract, buffalo grass (used in making Polish Zubrowka vodka), licorice, peated scotch and tobacco, to name but a few.

The main INGREDIENTS COMPLEMENTARY to vanilla (which therefore share the same dominant molecules) to cook with the VANILLA: Apricot, green anise, star anise, beetroot, blueberry, cocoa, coffee, cinnamon, caramel, clove, turmeric, fennel, tonka bean, toasted sesame seeds, heliotrope, nutmeg, walnut, coconut, peach, pepper, licorice, wild rice, sassafras, maple syrup, smoked black tea.

Other complementary ingredients to cook with VANILLA: Grilled food (fruits, vegetables, fish and meat), almond, dill, angelica (root), dried fruit, smoke, olive oil (Manzanilla Cacerena, Spain), lavender, honey, cooked chicken, prunes, raisins, tobacco (Havana leaves), violet.

WINES and EAUX-DE-VIE COMPLEMENTARY with vanilla to achieve harmony with dishes dominated by vanilla or its complementary ingredients:

-Chardonnay aged in barrels (New World)

-Roussanne/Marsanne from Rhône, Australia and California

Naturally sweet non-musky and aged wines: banyuls, maury and rivesaltes

-Jerez Oloroso and Cream

-Madeira Bual and Malmsey

-Spanish red wines: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro and Jumilla.

            -Argentinean Malbec and modern Cahors

            -California Merlot

-Eaux-de-vie matured in barrels: bourbon, cognac, scotch (peat) and brown rum.

-Vodka Zubrowka (Poland)


François Chartier « Créateur d’harmonies »
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