Clear vs. Dark Vanilla Extract: What's the Difference?

Vanilla is a universally versatile and celebrated flavour, and vanilla pods have become quite popular since they were first introduced. The extract and essence are associated with homely, festival baking and add quintessential warmth to desserts. Most home-bakers and cooks associate vanilla with the dark-coloured liquid that is their go-to ingredient to flavour cakes, pastries and cookies. 

Vanilla essence is usually dark or amber-coloured with a thin consistency. However, there are clear vanilla extracts that have made their foray into the market. Some chefs swear by them, saying they help keep their desserts spotlessly white for aesthetic purposes while rendering the flavour of warm vanilla.

So, the question arises: Is there a difference between the clear and dark versions of vanilla extract? If yes, how do they differ; only in colour, or are there differences in

  • Concentration
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Ingredients
  • How they are made

To answer these questions, we would have to look at how vanilla extract is usually produced. 

Two extraction processes are commonly used - one involves ethanol, and the other uses the invert-sugar process. While some companies prefer the ethanol process, others use the invert-sugar process to make the extract less harmful for those with allergies and cater to the halal market.

Here’s how:

Vanilla beans are steeped in alcohol for a few months to prepare the extract at home. When made commercially, there are a few processes that speed this up. However, the alcohol tends to absorb the flavour and colour of the seeds and make them appear dark brown.

In the invert sugar process, vanilla beans are soaked in a solution containing invert sugar and glucose. There are various syrups that different brands use. Normally, the extract contains invert sugar syrup, water, glucose and vanilla.

Pure vanilla extract is usually a dark liquid regardless of the extraction process. This is mostly because of the colour of the bean and seeds. Pure vanilla extract contains vanilla bean seeds along with alcohol or invert sugar.

Clear vanilla extract:

Clear vanilla extract is made by using synthetic vanillin. The compound used in clear vanilla extract is usually artificial. This delivers the same flavour that pure vanilla extract would. Similar to the pure version, clear vanilla extract is available in an alcohol-free version. Chefs and pâtissiers use clear vanilla extract in royal icing or macarons meant to be a pure, snowy white. Sometimes, even meringue is given a twist with an additional vanilla flavour. In this case, as well, clear vanilla extract is used.

The primary use of clear vanilla extract is to preserve the white colour in icing and baked goods. It is also called ‘crystal vanilla.’ It is usually used with icing sugar to adhere to the colour requirements of wedding cakes, pastries and icing.

It tastes the same as pure vanilla extract. Some consumers have reported a slight change in the taste of products when they use clear vanilla extract. However, the consensus is that the difference in taste is hardly noticeable.

‘Imitation vanilla,’ as some brands call it, costs much lesser than pure vanilla extract. It also has the characteristic smell of vanilla. Therefore, when used in cakes or icing, it smells and tastes like pure vanilla extract. This makes it an effective replacement for pure vanilla in the baking industry.

Being synthetic, this extract is not an option for those who prepare organic food or like to adhere to its original flavours.

Dark Vanilla Extract:

The dark liquid you get when buying a bottle of pure vanilla extract is usually the pure version. This is more intense than clear vanilla and is the one  preferred in the baking industry. However, a slight colour change could happen when adding this to the dessert. Pure vanilla extract packs in good flavour and fragrance and is not synthetic. It also renders the unique flavour notes found only in pure vanilla. The ‘specks’ contained in natural vanilla are also considered gourmet and are a textural and visual delight in the dessert.

Most countries have food regulations. Pure vanilla extract is certified only if it meets the conditions set by these governing agencies. The FDA in the USA and FSSAI in India are examples of regulating bodies that check if the products meet the standards.

However, do not be fooled only by colour. In many markets in Mexico, Columbia and other countries around the world, synthetic vanillin is used with corn syrup, sweeteners, caramelised sugar and such to dupe customers.

It is important to check for the FSSAI or FDA stamp before you buy pure vanilla extract. Although you might get lured by the lucrative cost of artificial vanilla essence, they might come at a cost to your health.

Opt for pure, natural and wholesome vanilla, such as Goodness Vanilla’s range of vanilla products that have been farmed and processed in-house for a bouquet of aroma and flavour in your dishes.

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