Tell me the truth: what kind of vanilla extract do you have in the house now? Is it something you bought in the grocery store? If so, too bad; you don’t know what you’re missing. Not that I blame you; I grew up on vanilla extract like that, as well, and it was fine when I was a kid. But somehow, and I don’t recall just how this happened, I found Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, and once I did it was as though someone had opened a portal to culinary enlightenment.
In the days when I was a recipe developer, I would buy the extract by the quart. I used it in absolutely everything, from spiced coffee to chocolate soufflé to my very best Black Bottom Banana Cream Pie. There are a number of different vanillas available, depending upon what you’re making, but my favorite was always the Madagascar Bourbon (despite the name, this vanilla has nothing to do with the American alcohol called “bourbon,” but is named for the Bourbon Islands off the African coast).
Nielsen-Massey has been making their vanillas in Chicago since 1907. The family-owned company is currently located in Waukegan, where the factory moved after outgrowing the previous Webster Street location in the city. The vanilla beans arrive to the factory freshly picked, they are then crushed and ground into smaller pieces before the extraction process begins. From beginning to end this takes about three to five weeks.
If discovering Nielsen-Massey Vanillas was a leap forward in my culinary education, finding out that they produce a line of organic vanilla products was a revelation. Not only is my treasured Madagascar Bourbon extract available as an organic product, but this business also offers Madagascar Bourbon Organic Vanilla Beans (fantastic when you want a true, deeply vanilla flavor) and organic Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Powder. The concept of vanilla powder seems strange to many people, but it’s a wonderful ingredient. For example, if you want to make your own hot cocoa mix to give as a gift, a little vanilla powder adds a gorgeous flavor and rounds out the aroma.
People spend great sums on scented products that are supposed to improve their mood, but if there’s a cook or baker in your life, I’ll bet you anything you please that Nielsen-Massey Organic Vanillas will be all the aromatherapy he or she ever needs.
Factory photos via Chicagoist.