A pastry chef and vanilla producer weigh in on the vanilla shortage
A spoonful of whipped cream on top of a stack of pancakes, a bite of banana bread, a scoop of oatmeal—without vanilla extract, these items would taste like they’re missing something. But when you finish that little bottle of amber liquid and head to the store to buy a new one, you may be unprepared for the price tag: A two-ounce bottle of—say it with me now—good vanilla could run you over $15. Unfortunately, that price may only continue to creep up.
The world's largest vanilla-producing country, Madagascar, is currently struggling to meet crop expectations due to an increase in demand from large food-production companies and extreme weather conditions. Because of these factors, there is currently a widespread shortage of vanilla.
Of course, there are plenty of other extracts and flavorings available to home cooks and professional pastry chefs, but because vanilla’s flavor is so ingrained in our idea of sweets, it is essentially the je ne sais quois-factor we crave.
With real vanilla extract’s prices spiking, it’s natural to want to reach for imitation vanilla, which can be even more than five times cheaper. While there's nothing wrong with imitation vanilla, there is a significant difference in flavor when the two are tested next to each other. If I can barely afford to refresh my bottle of real vanilla extract, I can only imagine how the professionals are struggling. While opting for the artificial stuff might be fine for your morning bowl of oatmeal, some chefs wouldn’t dare make the compromise.
Marc Aumont, executive pastry chef for Gabriel Kreuther and Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate, is strongly against using imitation vanilla in his pastries, even if it would prove more affordable.
“We always go for quality, and will never change our mind on that,” Aumont told me in an email. “We know that the best ingredients make the best products, and we plan to keep that going. Of course, as vanilla prices increase, our margins shrink, but we’d rather feel that and be true to ourselves than use an inferior product.”
Of course, Madagascar isn’t the only area producing vanilla. Heilala Vanilla, a company based in New Zealand, produces their vanilla in the Kingdom of Tonga, an archipelago in the South Pacific. While Tonga can experience similar cyclones to those that have diminished Madagascar's crop yield, Jennifer Boggiss, the CEO, Co-Founder, and Director of Heilala Vanilla, told me that their company spreads out their operation over three islands. Heilala works with chefs all over the world to ensure they never have to use imitation vanilla if they don’t want to.
Ruby Grant, General Manager of Sales and Marketing at Heilala Vanilla, says they’ve turned down many offers for the bulk purchase of their vanilla beans, especially from traders. “We are not interested in supplying vanilla as a commodity product or raw ingredient in large quantities,” Grant says. “We prefer to focus our efforts on a transparent, safe and ethical supply chain which results on a high quality product that home bakers and chefs can appreciate.”
Heilala’s commitment to bringing real vanilla to chefs and home cooks is good news for professionals like Aumont. He feels that when substitutes are used to mimic a flavor, the dish’s integrity disappears. If you’ve ever had fries tossed with cheap truffle oil compared to an extraction made from the real deal, you’ll understand the disparity Aumont is referring to.
“If the price of vanilla keeps going up, we may be forced to increase some of our prices,” Aumont says. “But we will never use an artificial replacement or omit it completely—it’s such an important part of what we do.”
If you’re not interested in switching to imitation vanilla either, it might seem like the best way to make the most of the plant would be to buy whole vanilla beans, but Grant has another solution: “Vanilla paste is a great way to use pure vanilla in a way that is more economical as a little goes a long way.” While paste is comparable in price to extract, since the paste is thicker, it adds the stunning black freckles you might associate with really high-quality sweets to everyday dishes. Says Grant, “there is no wastage, it has a long shelf life and it gives your dishes the full flavor of vanilla.”
Can’t afford to splurge on extract or paste? Aumont has a suggestion: “There are so many other ingredients that are beautiful and playful to work with, from spices, herbs, and produce that you can get different and unique flavors from.” While ingredients like rose flower water, cinnamon, and almond extract may not completely replace vanilla in our hearts, they’re a good place to start.