Chefs, cooks and stores are looking for alternatives to vanilla extract and vanilla beans after a spike in prices.
EVEN LAST YEAR, tipping a bottle of vanilla extract over a teaspoon felt like pouring coins into some of my favorite recipes: my best coffee cake, a vanilla-scented rice pudding, a chocolate-chip cookie that’s better than Toll House but takes twice the vanilla.
In hindsight, vanilla was just a mild extravagance then. Now, it’s practically liquid gold (or more precisely, silver, which, newscasts note, has become cheaper per kilo than vanilla). The 16-ounce bottle of pure vanilla extract I sometimes splurged on from King Arthur Flour, $22.95 in 2013 and $44.95 (ouch!) in 2017, now lists for $89.95. Four vanilla beans from Central Market, usually my favorite stop for bulk spices, recently ran nearly $30.
Several factors led to the code-red sticker shock — or can we call it saffron-level sticker shock, named after the only spice that retails for more? There’s a global vanilla shortage, generally blamed on crop-destroying storms in Madagascar, which produces 80 percent of the world’s supply. Simultaneously, major manufactures increased demand for pure vanilla. The plant’s vines take a few years to mature, so it takes time to increase the supply, and the spice is labor-intensive at every stage. Skyrocketing prices make the pods attractive to thieves, pressuring farmers to harvest unripe crops, further limiting the supply of high-quality beans.
Vanilla prices have gone through volatile cycles before, but this year’s spikes are causing more fundamental re-evaluations. It would be one thing if vanilla were a special-occasion spice, but we’re talking about a basic ingredient of the baking world — as well as a bigger world facing the ominous agricultural threats of climate change.
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Bill Penzey, owner of Penzeys Spices, warned customers about a hefty vanilla price hike in a June email, and wrote that he was starting to wonder whether it was time to develop an alternative, cheaper natural extract that “would bring a lot of the same happiness to baked treats and ice cream.”
For now, some companies are discontinuing vanilla-heavy products; others are absorbing new costs if they can and raising prices if they can’t. They’re switching out sources (Mexican vanilla instead of Madagascar for some) or switching up recipes (there’s a reason for all the “sweet cream” ice creams you’re seeing now), while cooks trade stealth tips to find the last stores of bargain beans. Smaller producers have more flexibility than global conglomerates, but also less buffer to absorb price shocks.
“What we used to get for about $25 a gallon is now about $300,” said Justin Cline of Full Tilt Ice Cream. He had bought “tons” of vanilla extract in advance, seeing the warning signs ahead, but even his backstock is now running out.
At The Essential Baking Company, which supplies grocery stores and restaurants around the region in addition to its own cafes, current recipes aren’t changing much, but the shortage will affect which new pastries are introduced to the bakery case: “I am not looking to use a lot of vanilla in whatever development I’m doing,” said co-founder George De Pasquale.
Home cooks do have options, including omitting vanilla or substituting other flavorings (my colleague Jill Lightner swears by bourbon), stockpiling lower-priced products when we find them if the budget allows (vanilla extract can last for years in a cool and dark place) and eliminating the middleman markup by making your own vanilla extract with whole beans and alcohol. We can extend the life of used pods by making vanilla-scented sugar, letting us cut back or eliminate the additional vanilla in recipes where we use the sugar.
Another real possibility is using far-cheaper imitation extracts, which most people in well-designed taste tests can’t distinguish from the real thing. Some people can’t abide them (including De Pasquale, who audibly winces at the “pretty chemical process” by which they’re synthesized from petroleum products or wood pulp), but some prefer them, especially in recipes where vanilla’s a backup note rather than a major flavor.
For an ingredient almost as basic as butter, there’s a surprising romance around vanilla that I’d hate to see dissipate: the intoxicating scent, the tactile pleasure of slitting open a plump, pliable bean and scraping out the seeds that line the inside like rich soil in a fertile garden. Even a good extract can be soaked with grandeur, reminding us that vanilla is, after all, made from orchids: When I baked cookies with my mom as a kid, she would let me dab vanilla extract behind my ears, long before I was old enough for the cut-glass bottles of imported perfume I admired on her dressing table.
These days, they seem like an equal luxury.
Vanilla Bean Sugar
1 vanilla bean, whole or scraped
2 cups sugar
1. If vanilla bean is whole, slice down the side of the bean with the back of a knife, and scrape seeds into an airtight container with the sugar. Bury bean in sugar, and seal tightly with lid. Let sit for 1 to 2 weeks. Use as regular sugar.
Alton Brown, courtesy foodnetwork.com