What are the ingredients in pure vanilla extract?
It recently was brought to my attention that many leading manufacturers add sugar or corn syrup to their vanilla. My initial reaction to this was, "The scoundrels! Is no food safe from the taint of sweeteners?" McCormick, it turns out, puts corn sugar in its vanilla. More surprising, sugar is listed as an ingredient in Penzey's and in Nielsen-Massey's, considered by many to be the gold standard.
I called Nielsen-Massey and spoke to Craig Nielsen, CEO of the 104-year-old Waukegan, Ill.-based company, and grandson of its founder. Nielsen confirmed that sugar was not only a permissible ingredient in vanilla extract, but a desirable one. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, vanilla extract must contain vanilla bean "constituent" and at least 35 percent alcohol. It may contain glycerin, propylene glycol, sugar, dextrose and/or corn syrup.
Nielsen said the sweetener "helps keep vanilla's flavoring matter in suspension. If you look at vanilla that doesn't have sugar in it, it looks cloudy." Corn syrup will do the same job, but Nielsen prefers the taste of sugar. He guessed that the sugar content of Nielsen-Massey vanilla extract was about 5 percent, an insignificant amount considering most recipes call for 1 teaspoon of vanilla.
I wondered aloud why a cloudy appearance would be detrimental to vanilla's appeal since it is always packaged in dark-brown bottles. This elicited a fascinating anecdote. "The reason vanilla comes in brown-glass bottles," Nielsen said, "is that it used to be stocked by pharmacists who used it to cover up the bad flavors of the prescriptions they mixed. When they started selling the vanilla, they used the same brown bottles that they used for medicine."
Another surprising fact, courtesy of Craig Nielsen: Bourbon vanilla has nothing to do with Kentucky corn liquor. Madagascar-Bourbon, Mexican and Tahitian are the main varieties of vanilla bean, each named for its geographical origin. "Bourbon" is the former name of Reunion Island, about 500 miles East of Madagascar; "Madagascar-Bourbon" vanilla is grown there and on other tropical islands in the Indian Ocean.
What's the best way to deal with brown sugar that's gotten hard?
The folk remedy for this affliction is to put a slice of apple or piece of bread in with the sugar; gradually the moisture from the former will soften up the latter. But I've never liked the idea of saddling such a shelf-stable food as sugar with something that is eventually going to get moldy. If my brown sugar isn't too far gone, I'll put it in a large resealable plastic bag with a rolled-up ball of dampened paper towel, laying the bag on its side so the ball doesn't touch the sugar. (When sugar gets wet, it crystallizes, and once that happens you need a nuclear reactor to make it soft again.) For rock-hard sugar, put it in a deep glass bowl and cover the bowl with a damp paper towel and then either a microwavable lid or plate. Microwave for about a minute, then break up the sugar and repeat until it has softened sufficiently.
UPDATE (3/16/11): After my recent my column about the presence (or absence) of sugar in vanilla extract, many of you responded with recipes for homemade vanilla extract. Here's a simple one:
Split a vanilla bean lengthwise and place it in a glass jar with a tightfitting lid. Pour 1/2 cup vodka over it, making sure bean is completely immersed. Screw on the lid and shake the jar once a day. After about a week, you will have vanilla extract. It will get stronger over the next few weeks and will keep indefinitely.
In her first book, "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" (Potter, $35), Ina Garten suggests immersing 12 vanilla beans in a 750-ml bottle of vodka.
As for hardened brown sugar, readers offered suggestions for not letting it get hard in the first place. Susan Bruno of Amityville championed the ceramic method, in which a small disc (or bear shape) of porous ceramic is soaked in water and then placed in the sugar. Most kitchenware stores carry this item, as does vermontcountrystore.com and, the specialist, sugarbearsinc.com. Judith Hoffman of Port Washington wrote "the best way to keep brown sugar from hardening is to store it in the freezer. It doesn't get hard and, no, it doesn't freeze."