Friday, June 1, 2012


Three vanilla flavors

Hier geht's zur deutschen Version dieses Posts

In 1891 August Oetker, a young pharmacist from Bielefeld, Germany, came up with the formula for a new kind of baking powder. 

Whereas the original baking powder, invented 35 years earlier, could not be stored, and, worse, had an odd aftertaste, the new "Backin" had a much longer shelf life and tasted neutral.

Dr. Oetker, not resting on his pharmaceutical laurels, was also a marketing genius. Instead of filling his mixture in tin cans, or card board boxes, like everybody else, he sold it in small packets - not to professional bakers, but to housewives - a portion just enough for 500 g flour, or one cake!

Making it much more convenient for mothers to bake for their families, he also found new ways to advertize. With recipes printed on the packets, and in his newspaper ads, he tempted them to bake even more - of course with his practical "Backin".

Being so successful with baking powder, the smart pharmacist created a whole line of baking products, packaging every item in small sachets or tiny glass tubes. No need for measuring, or eyeballing, but ready to use in most regular sized cakes or other baked goods.

Because of this clever marketing strategy, planned in the back room of a pharmacy in Bielefeld, German housewives are used to buy vanilla aroma in 1-portion packets, mixed with sugar for easier distribution. Vanilla extract, like in the US, is rarely to find in German baking aisles.

Dr. Oetker's original vanilla flavor - the one that I, and most Germans, grew up with - is an artificial aroma. Meanwhile, you can get a natural flavor, too: "Bourbon-Vanille".

In specialty stores for cooks, like my favorite "Rooster Brother" in Ellsworth, you can also buy vanilla bean paste. This tastes like scraped vanilla beans, but it is rather expensive, and cannot be stored for long - it gets hard.

But why buy vanilla extract or sugar, when both is very easy to make!

HOMEMADE VANILLA EXTRACT (adapted from "Cook's Illustrated")

1 vanilla bean
6 oz/180 ml hot vodka (like Smirnoff - it doesn't have to be an expensive brand)

Split vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape it. Place empty pod and its contents in empty jam glass or another 1-cup container with lid. Pour hot vodka over vanilla, and let it cool to room temperature, then close the lid.

Let mixture stand for 1 week at room temperature, shaking the glass gently every day. 

Strain the vanilla extract (optional), and store it in a dark, cool place. It will keep indefinitely.


You don't even have to buy vanilla beans extra for that purpose. Whenever you use a vanilla bean, place the scraped pod into an empty jam glass, or another 1-cup container with lid, and fill it up with sugar.

After a few days the sugar will be infused with vanilla aroma. This will keep indefinitely, you can always add more vanilla beans and more sugar.


1 tsp vanilla extract         =      1 packet/2 tsp/8 g vanilla sugar ("Vanillezucker")                                                                       =     1 vanilla bean (2-inch/5 cm)
1 tsp. vanilla extract        =     1 tsp vanilla bean paste


Vanilla extract and vanilla sugar - homemade or store bought - can keep forever, stored in a cool, dark place.

Vanilla bean paste, stored in a cool and dark place, keeps several months, but gets hard eventually.

"Cook's Illustrated" tested different ways to how to store vanilla beans - they keep best if they are wrapped in plastic foil, and placed in a freezer bag in the vegetable drawer of the fridge (1 month or longer).


Dry and hard vanilla beans are very difficult to scrape. They can be rescued by placing them in a small bowl, covering them with whipping cream or half-and-half, and microwaving them for 1 - 2 minutes.

After this hot spa treatment, the pod are plump and pliable again, and can be easily scraped. And you have some nice, vanilla flavored cream as additional benefit, too. (This tip came from one of "Cook's Illustrated" readers.)

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