Vanilla & Thermodynamics

The weekend’s mailbag contained this interesting question from regular reader and commentator Hans Fugal:

You brought up vanilla (briefly) which reminded me of a thought I’ve
been entertaining. I heard about vanilla sugar at and started
working the math in my head. A couple of beans will make a jar full of
vanilla sugar, and you only need a couple of teaspoons to substitute
vanilla sugar for vanilla, then it seems you can make a vanilla bean go
a lot further this way. Sounds too good to be true, actually. Kind of
like breaking the laws of thermodynamics. But maybe… what’s your

Interesting question, Hans, for in truth I’ve never tried to substitute vanilla sugar for vanilla one-to-one, probably because I’m cheap and wouldn’t want to risk throwing away a precious vanilla bean on such an experiment. Which is not to say I don’t make or use vanilla sugar. My normal practice is to reserve the husks (or “shells”) of vanilla beans after I’ve scraped out the seeds, and insert them into a jar of table sugar. A week or two in the pantry and the entire jar is infused with the aroma of vanilla (I’ll add as many as six or eight split husks if I have them). The sugar is terrific as a topping for cookies, even on oatmeal or plain cereal. However as strong as I’ve tried to make vanilla sugar, it’s never approached the intensity of either extract or vanilla seeds which are so pungent as to be almost unpalatable.

I do know that in Europe it’s common to see packaged vanilla sugar in stores. This product, as I understand it, is made with actual vanilla seeds. Thus a cup or so added to a cake batter would eliminate the need to add extract separately. The problem is that it’s expensive…sometimes even moreso than the vanilla and sugar are on their own. That to me defeats the purpose, though you can’t say it isn’t convenient.

The article you linked to is interesting, though I have to say the evidence is against some of the opinions it contains. Whereas real straight-from-the-bean vanilla is irreplaceable in things like custards and ice creams, repeated tastes tests have proven that imitation vanilla (called vanillin, an extract of wood pulp) gives off more aroma and flavor than real vanilla in certain contexts (cookies, cake batters, etc.). Thus I always keep a ready supply of it in the pantry, along with a bottle of real vanilla extract (for those judgment calls), one or two fresh vanilla beans and of course a jar of vanilla sugar. Vanilla, as you can probably guess by now, is my number one favorite flavoring. I’m never caught without.

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