Vanilla and Heat

Reader Neha asks:

Why are we always asked to remove something from heat and then stir in vanilla extract? Is it something to do with the alcohol? But that doesn’t make sense, because there’s so little of it! I’m confused.

That’s a very good question, since it comes up a lot in recipes. The reason is because vanilla — at least real vanilla — is delicate stuff. It contains scores of different sorts of flavor compounds, many of which can be damaged by high, prolonged heat. Sometimes heating vanilla is unavoidable, say in a cookie recipe. In those instances I’ll tend to use an imitation vanilla extract. But real vanilla bean should be babied, and only used for things like custards, which are never heated above the boiling point.

How you treat a real vanilla extract is a judgement call. But for maximum flavor, it’s better not to expose vanilla to too much heat if you can avoid it. Thanks for the excellent question, Neha!

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