Natural flavorings are, well, natural. Think of herbs (fresh and dried), spices, nuts (ground and whole), flower buds (like lavender), zests, dried fruits, roots, and seeds (vanilla is the seed pod of an orchid). Their flavors and aromas can be infused into most anything you cook, from savory dishes to elegant pastries.
Natural flavorings can also be processed for easier use and more consistency in flavor. The flavor agent can be powdered, extracted by soaking in alcohol or water, crushed to remove the volatile oils, and fermented into liqueurs. Using processed flavorings assures us that 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract today will taste the same as 1 teaspoon next month.
Artificial flavorings are created from foundations that are usually man-made. While the flavors will be consistent, they are often harsh and may leave an unpleasant aftertaste. And the food geek in me just has to say this: natural flavors taste better because they are more complex. As an example, real vanilla has hundreds of flavor notes, while artificial vanilla may have only one or two flavor notes, leaving the food tasting flat or like chemicals.
Here are a couple of tips to get the most out of your REAL vanilla extract (not artificial).
- When adding vanilla extract to a creamy or custardy cooked dish, add it after the dish has completely cooked and is beginning to cool. Adding it at the end of the recipe will prevent the alcohol from evaporating, which is where a lot of the flavor lives.
- When adding vanilla to baked goods, add it to the butter and sugar mixture. The butter will coat the vanilla and help retain its flavor while in the hot oven.
Try natural vanilla extract in one of these recipes: