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Old February 17th, 2004, 08:59 PM
Fighterone Fighterone is offline
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Default Re: Vanilla/Rum--Mexico

Tequila and Kahlua are the liquors to buy. The best place is the CEDRAUI grocery store for the locals. It is a 5 minute walk from Punta Langosta, the dock. They also sell vanilla there. I pulled up a little information on vanilla since Mexican vanilla can also be artificial.
Here goes, from cooksillustrated
Rating Vanilla Extracts
An all-star tasting panel found little difference between cheap imitation vanilla
and the most expensive brand made from vanilla beans. Does quality really make a difference?

The reason that we do blind tastings at Cook’s Illustrated is so we can provide you with recommendations based on our own personal experiences, rather than on what “everybody says.” Sometimes the results confirm common wisdom, and sometimes, as in this tasting, they fly in the face of our expectations.

Most of us are dedicated fans of expensive, deliciously aromatic vanillas. But when the test results were in, it turned out that the differences among vanilla extracts disappeared during cooking. We found this so surprising that we ran a second blind testing—and came up with the same result.

In every food tasting we do, our first step is to taste the products by themselves. We almost always find a broad range of quality among samples tested; this held true when we tasted eleven vanilla extracts “as is.”

But when testing ingredients such as extracts, which are not meant to be consumed alone, we also hold a second round of testing in which we use each sample to bake or cook something, then taste the resulting food. Ordinarily, we find a similar range of quality in this test as well. For instance, chocolates that were favored in a plain tasting (see November/December 1994 issue) made considerably better cakes than chocolates that rated poorly in the plain tasting. But when we ran the second-round test with vanilla, the results were a shock—it made little or no difference which vanilla was used.

A Surprising Dual Tasting
The first question we faced when organizing the tasting was how to taste the extracts. Since they are so potent (by law, the alcohol content of vanilla extract must be at least 35 percent), it is difficult to appreciate their differences when they are sampled alone. We asked industry experts and found that they usually sample vanilla by mixing it into milk to see how a particular batch might perform in ice cream, the leading commercial use for extract.

This seemed like a good way for our panel of baking experts to evaluate the leading supermarket and gourmet brands, so we followed suit. Our tasters were easily able to pick out superior brands when the extracts were diluted in eight parts milk to one part vanilla. Some extracts were gray, others brown; some were clear, others cloudy; some had a woody nose, while others smelled more like butterscotch or chemicals.

However, when the vanillas were tasted in shortbread cookies made with just flour, butter, and sugar, it was impossible to identify significant differences among the samples. Tasters who had loathed imitation vanilla when they tasted it in plain milk chose the cookies made with imitation vanilla as their favorite. Likewise, vanillas that had seemed clearly superior when tasted in milk (the same two brands were rated as favorites by every single taster) were impossible to pick out in cookies.

We were so surprised by this result that we held a second blind testing of vanilla extracts with members of the Cook’s Illustrated editorial staff. Once again, tasters found distinct differences among vanillas when tasted in milk, but little or no difference among cookies baked with different vanillas. In a vanilla custard made with just milk, egg yolks, and sugar, only Tahitian vanilla, an entirely different bean, stood out as unique.

How can we explain this apparent discrepancy? First of all, unlike most ingredients that we have conducted blind tastings of, vanilla extract is used in extremely small quantities. Cookie and custard recipes call for only minute amounts of vanilla, usually around one percent of the total volume of ingredients. At such low concentrations, most differences among extracts are simply impossible to detect. The fact that vanilla extract contains so much alcohol, which evaporates during baking or when stirred into a hot custard, further complicates the task of tasting vanilla in a real setting.

Some Differences
Despite the less-than-clear results, our tasting did reveal a few interesting facts. First of all, vanilla extract made at home by steeping beans in quality brandy for one month was judged to be decidedly inferior to commercial brands. Even though we followed the government standards for pure extract, a ratio of beans to liquid that manufacturers must follow, our homemade extract was anemic-tasting and not worth the effort or money. Homemade extract was the most expensive and least favorite sample in the tasting.

Our second major finding was that many people actually enjoy, or at least don’t mind, the flavor of imitation extract. Imitation extract is derived from wood pulp and is chemically treated to resemble natural vanilla; it has an unmistakable flavor and aroma. When tasted in milk, most tasters thought this flavor was “fake” or “odd,” while a few described it as “rich” or “nutty.” However, when used in a custard or cookies, the imitation extract was actually preferred by several tasters. In particular, the custard made with imitation extract seemed to have more vanilla flavor than custards made with real extracts. Our natural aversion to imitation products, coupled with the modest cost difference between real and imitation vanilla, prevents us from recommending that you buy imitation extract.

The last major finding of our research has to do with Tahitian vanilla extract. Almost two-thirds of the world’s supply of vanilla beans comes from Madagascar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa. Several high-end manufacturers make single-variety extracts from Madagascan beans (also known as Bourbon vanilla beans) as well as from beans from Mexico and Tahiti. Most extracts, however, are made with a blend of beans from various tropical locations.

Since some companies make several extracts, each from beans grown in a distinct region, we decided to limit the original tasting with our expert panel to extracts made with Madagascan beans (the most popular kind) as well as blended extracts presumably made from beans from several unnamed sources.

In the second tasting with members of the editorial staff of the magazine, we included “varietal” extracts made by Nielsen-Massey, each made with beans from a single source— Madagascar, Mexico, and Tahiti. When we tasted these extracts in milk, the differences were immediately apparent. The Tahitian extract was flowery, even musky, and easily distinguished from the Mexican and Madagascan extracts. Tahitian beans are a hybrid that originated spontaneously on a few islands in the South Pacific. Beans grown in every other part of the world, including Mexico and Madagascar, are from the same species.

We then tasted these three extracts in shortbread and in a stirred custard. As in the initial tasting, the differences among the cookies were too subtle to distinguish, despite the fact that the Mexican extract was deemed overly alcoholic and inferior when tasted in plain milk. The floral character of the Tahitian extract was also gone. Baking eliminated any identifying characteristics in these varietal extracts. However, the flavor of the Tahitian extract came through loud and clear in the stirred custard and provoked wildly diverging views. Some tasters responded favorably to the “flowery nose” while others thought the flavor was “too strong to be real” or just plain “horrible.”

Despite the varied opinions, everyone agreed Tahitian vanilla extract was different. For custards and other desserts, such as mousses, fruit sauces, and ice creams, which don’t involve baking, you may want to try Tahitian extract to see if you like the flavor. You may not love the results, but you will notice a difference.

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