Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Imposter Chocolate Chip Cookies!

Dear Tricia, My dad makes AWESOME chocolate chip cookies. When I asked for the recipe he told me he used the recipe off the back of the Toll House bag. So I tried to make cookies at home and they didn’t taste right. The only thing I could come up with, is the he used “real” vanilla extract, and the only thing I had was “imitation” vanilla that I use to keep my cake icings white. Could the “imitation” be the flavor culprit?

Hmmm... they tasted different when you only changed one thing, so my first instinct is to say, yes, that's the culprit. That's just logical. But I can't write a one sentence blog, so lets take a quick class on vanilla, shall we?
Real vanilla extract comes from vanilla beans, which are grown in hot, humid areas ranging from Mexico all the way down to the West Indies and South America. Vanilla has been around since the 15th Century (well, I'm sure its been around longer, but that's when "we" discovered it) and is the second most expensive spice in the world, right behind saffron. Vanilla is so expensive because it takes so damn long for actual plants to grow. A vanilla plant will need 3 years just to be strong enough to grow the vanilla blossoms that will turn into vanilla pods. But remember 4th grade science and all that talk about pollination? Well the only insect that can successfully pollinate a vanilla blossom is one single type of bee that only lives in Mexico. And as I've already mentioned, vanilla grows in lots of places outside of Mexico. So guess who has to pollinate it? The growers. Vanilla has to be pollinated by hand within 12 hours of the blossoms opening. That's it. A 12 hour window or nothing else. After each blossom is painstakingly pollinated by human hands, it needs another 10 months just to grow the vanilla pods, which are what we use for baking. That's a pretty high maintenance plant. Super needy. (Ladies, when it comes to relationships, don't try to be too much like a vanilla plant. Positive results probably aren't in your favor.) But then it keeps going... after the pods are harvested, they have to be aged, dried, cured, "sweated", conditioned... it goes through a months-long process of being wrapped in fabrics and left in boxes and dipped in boiling water and all kinds of booby traps that help it develop its characteristic flavors. No wonder its so freaking expensive.
So, back to Imitation Vanilla. You know how every celebrity has a designer perfume? Like Paris Hilton, for example, will go on and on about how her perfume has components of grapefruit, musk, and vanilla, and cheap hooker in it? The designer imposter version of her perfume probably only has a limited number of those components in it. Most likely the cheap hooker one, since that's the most recognizable. Well vanilla has 171 identifiable aromatic components. (Imagine having the job that defines all those... crazy.) And imitation vanilla only has 1 of those components in it, Vanillin. And unfortunately, vanillin is produced as a by product of the paper industry. Gross. This is why the complexity of the real deal is so much more noticeable than the fake one. And possibly why your cookies taste different than your dads.
If you decide that real vanilla is something you want to include in your baking, you don't always have to use vanilla extract. You can also find ground vanilla pods (vanilla powder), vanilla sugar, or you can use the whole pods, which can get expensive.
The other thing I thought of... butter. In baking, you're usually supposed to use unsalted butter because salt is already going to be included somewhere else in the recipe. Find out if he's using salted butter, or maybe you are and didn't realize it. That could also affect the flavor. Let me know how it works out for you.