All vanilla extracts were not created equal

March 27, 2012

The Big Man wanted to surprise me one day by cooking dinner.

“When are you going to be home from work?” he asked. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

I told him I would be home in about an hour and excitedly asked what the surprise was.

“I’m cooking dinner!” he proudly exclaimed.

For some of you, this may be no big deal, but in our house, it’s right up there with Jesus parting the Red Sea.

The Big Man does not cook. At all. He can’t even make toast very well. For him to cook an entire dinner is a feat of the greatest magnitude.

The phone rang again.

“Where do you keep the vanilla?” he asked.

“In the pantry on the second shelf. Why?”

“It’s my secret ingredient,” he replied and hung up.

The menu that evening included baked red snapper with lemon, mashed potatoes, and sliced French bread with olive oil and spices for dipping. Not entirely well-rounded in the food groups, but prepared with love, if not skill.

As we sat down to dinner, I learned that the vanilla was his “secret ingredient” in the mashed potatoes. The same potatoes that he had cut in half, boiled 3 minutes, and pounded into submission before adding the vanilla.

When prepared traditionally, mashed potatoes are creamy, buttery and very tasty.

Vanilla, I can tell you from personal experience, is not a good addition to mashed potatoes.

Cookies, cakes, and other goodies are a different story. Where would our baked goods be without this wonderful and fragrant flavoring?

What would chocolate chip cookies taste like without vanilla?!

Basically, vanilla extract is made by submerging dried vanilla pods in alcohol and water and letting it sit for months. The three most popular types of vanilla are Mexican, Madagascar, and Tahitian.

Though I’m no expert, my favorite of all the vanillas I’ve tried over the years is Totonac’s pure Mexican vanilla. It’s strong, but not overly sweet and the flavor it adds to baked goods is noticeable, but not overpowering. The scent is heavenly, but not artificial. It makes you want to dab a little behind your ears and on your wrists.

The BEST vanilla.

The Totonac’s are credited with first cultivating vanilla which is the edible fruit of a type of orchid plant. They considered it a sacred herb. The plant only grows in warm and humid climates like the Totonacapan region of Mexico.

The Totonacas people know how to make vanilla.

I purchased my 17 oz. bottle of Totonac’s pure vanilla while on vacation in Mexico a few years ago. I didn’t realize just how good it was until I ran out of it. I tried to substitute another “pure Mexican vanilla” I purchased in Texas with poor results.

I purchased this vanilla in the Mexican Market in San Antonio. The flavor is nothing like Totonac's vanilla.

Note: The FDA warns against vanilla purchased in Mexico. Many of these products contain a substance called coumarin that has potentially toxic side effects and is banned in the U.S. The label on my bottle of Totonac’s pure vanilla says that it does not contain coumarin.

You can spend a fortune on gourmet vanilla if you so choose. I’m sure those ultra-expensive varieties are good but, for me, nothing beats the flavor of Totonac’s.

Since I’m not planning a trip to Mexico anytime soon, I looked around for an online source where I could order some more. While the bottles look exactly the same, the vanilla available for purchase here in the states is labeled “pure vanilla flavoring” whereas the label on the bottle I purchased on vacation says it is “pure vanilla.” I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, but from the comments I found online, the “flavoring” doesn’t have the same fantastic flavor that the “pure vanilla” purchased in Mexico does.

Bummer.

Now I’m Totonac’s-less until I can coax someone to bring me back a bottle from vacation. And, if the Big Man decides to surprise me again by making dinner, he’ll just have to use substandard vanilla.

Do you have a favorite vanilla that stands out from the crowd?

Chickalicousness: 5 for heavenly flavor and aroma

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzie Ivy March 30, 2012 at 1:02 am

I use vanilla to make whole wheat banana nut bread but just use basic vanilla extract. The only time I’ve noticed a difference was when I bought vanilla flavoring by mistake. I’m not much of a cook so it never occurred to me that there were such distinct flavors. I do make wonderful mashed potatoes though but never added your husband’s secret ingredient. Thank you for the laugh.
Suzie Ivy recently posted..Footprints I Strive to Follow

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Unhip Chick March 30, 2012 at 1:09 am

I never really noticed a difference in vanilla flavors, either, UNTIL I bought that bottle of Totonac’s. Now, I guess I’m a vanilla snob. I’m sure yours are much, much better than the Big Man, though he gets points for trying. 🙂
Unhip Chick recently posted..All vanilla extracts were not created equal

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edwin April 28, 2014 at 10:09 pm

I just recieved a 33 oz bottle of totonacs vanilla as a gift from someone coming back from mexico. I tasted it on my finger and thought something wrong..then i realized that it didnt have that strong alcohol taste that american vanillas do. I love the way the totonacs vanilla isnt masked with alcohol. It is a nice pure flavor. I spilled a few drops on my shirt (accidentally) and wore it as colonge for a day. The taste from my finger had me thinking it might be a little weak,,but not at all. I put a little in my iced coffee, and realized that what little i used was too much..
Found a new product i love.

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Unhip Chick April 29, 2014 at 6:28 pm

I am so very, very envious of you, Edwin. That’s 33 ounces of vanilla perfection you’ve got there. Enjoy and try to make it last. And if your friend happens to go back to Mexico, could you have him/her pick up a bottle for me? Pretty please with sugar on top?
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Cheryl King November 8, 2015 at 2:29 am

Did you ever find a substitute? Now that they are out of biz I too am looking for all natural totonac vanillas!

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Unhip Chick November 8, 2015 at 3:05 am

Unfortunately, Cheryl, I have never found a good substitute. Alas, the search continues.
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Mary-Ann January 6, 2017 at 1:02 am

My sister brought me some of the same vanilla from Mexico. I put it in club soda, and it tastes just like a vanilla scented candle smells. Quite yummy. Haven’t used it in baking yet, and I may not. I might just save it for lovely drinks.

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Unhip Chick March 16, 2017 at 4:42 pm

Sounds dee-lish! What brand was this vanilla, Mary-Ann?

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Clark Kinnison March 16, 2017 at 4:34 pm
Unhip Chick March 16, 2017 at 4:40 pm

It’s interesting that they call this “flavoring” when it’s listed as 100% real vanilla. It certainly appears to be the same thing I purchased in Mexico (for a fraction of the price).

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Vickey August 20, 2017 at 2:29 am

Not sure if you found the vanilla but I get mine from their website. http://www.aztecvanilla.com. It’s their US website

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Unhip Chick September 12, 2017 at 12:07 am

Thanks for the tip, Vickey! I’ve ordered a bottle. We’ll see how it compare to the vanilla I remember.
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