Like us, you may be wondering why in the world vanilla extract has doubled in price in recent years. We found that a number of factors have caused the price to skyrocket: vanilla bean theft (!!), difficult pollination, extreme weather, habitat loss and rapidly growing demand because of the natural food movement. The bottom line: the once basic, "boring" vanilla may wind up becoming a rare sought-after delicacy.
So what's a baker to do? We'll provide information on your alternatives (not very many, we're afraid) in a blog post next week.
We found a great article on the subject in Business Insider. We're reprinting excerpts from the body of their article below. They also include a cute graphic video in their online article, which you can see here.
vanilla is hard to grow
One reason vanilla has gotten so expensive is, it's hard to grow. Vanilla vines take two to four years to fully mature, and their flowers only bloom for one day of the year. In order for the plants to produce beans, they have to be pollinated that day. In most places where vanilla is grown, it isn't a native plant, and there aren't bugs or birds capable of pollinating the flowers. Vanilla is native to Mexico, but deforestation there has greatly reduced its natural habitat. In Madagascar, where over 80% of vanilla is produced, the flowers have to be pollinated by hand. The pods need several months to cure after harvesting. The whole process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. But the record high price of vanilla also has to do with changes in the vanilla market.
artificial vanilla is less popular now
In the 1980s, cheaper artificial vanilla overtook the market. Vanilla farmers cut back production because they weren't making enough money. But around 2011, demand for real vanilla rose again. Big companies were joining the all-natural trend, pledging to eliminate artificial flavorings from their products. It's taken a while for the vanilla farmers to get back in the game and many no longer want to.
black market vanilla
Growing vanilla is a stressful and volatile business because there is such high demand, vanilla beans are a target for theft. After working hard to cultivate their crops some farmers have their beans stolen. As the stolen beans move up the supply chain, they get mixed in with legally purchased beans making it difficult for buyers to know which are which. The prevent theft, farmers pick the beans before they're ripe and unripe beans means lower quality vanilla. Farmers also try to prevent theft by branding their vanilla crops with a metal pronged brand. That way buyers can identify what farm the vanilla came from.
weather problems have added to the shortage
Farmers also run the risk of having their crops destroyed by extreme weather events. Cyclones are common in Madagascar and climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of those storms. If a cyclone were to wipe out vanilla crops next year, it would take until at least 2022 for new plants to start producing beans, and farmers might not want to take that risk. So the supply could continue to drop even further.
This cheesecake will really wow your guests at any winter gathering. The intense red color comes from boxed red velvet cake mix and an entire large container of no-taste red gel food coloring. The crust is made from crushed chocolate sandwich cookies (you know the brand). This dessert is a hearty one, so a standard size cheesecake will serve at least 12 people.
The addition of the cake mix makes it necessary to use a water bath with this cheesecake. We forgot to add it with this particular cake, and you can see that it sank and had huge cracks in it. You can avoid this by following our directions and using the water bath! If you do still get cracks, you can always top the cake with whipped cream or just go with it, like we did and call it "rustic." It's still delicious!
Our red velvet cheesecake stores well in the fridge for several days and can be frozen for up to three months if well wrapped.
You can see below what happens when you don't use a water bath. Go dry at your own risk :)
Butter. It's that magical ingredient that makes baked goods so delicious, sauces so creamy and bread so addictive for those of us with a carb addiction.
When we go to the supermarket, there are lots of types on offer, with a substantial difference in price. Are the more expensive brands really better? Is "European style" just a marketing ploy? Do they taste better? Are the better for baking?
We're not butter snobs or international foodies. But the type and brand of butter you use can make a difference in your recipes.
What is butter? Butter is made up of milk fat, other milk solids (curd) and water. The percentages of each determine color and best uses.
American style butter: Most Americans have grown up with grocery store "American style" butter, which usually comes in four, quarter-pound sticks. It is a pale white-yellow color, and usually contains about 80 percent milk fat, 16 to 18 percent water, and 1 to 2 percent milk solids (curd). This is the commodity type butter, and most cookie and cake recipes will be fine with this type of butter. In fact, your nana's recipes probably will turn out best with this type, as this is what she most likely used.
European style butter: This butter has a higher fat content, around 82 percent and up to 84 percent. European butter's lower water content is critical for laminated doughs, like croissants, and other pastries. We also like to use Euro butter for shortbreads and sable's, where butter's flavor is the star of the show. European butters tend to be more yellow, which can be a drawback for icings and other recipes where a whiter color is preferrable.
Salted vs Unsalted: When baking, you should choose unsalted butter for your recipes. If, like us, you shop around for the best price, this is the safest way to guarantee that you are in control of the salt content of your baked goods. Use salted butter on your bread and toast, or in sauces where the level of salt is adjusted along the way.
Whipped or Churned Butter: Use these only for breads. They are not appropriate for baking.
The following are some of our favorites, which you should be able to find in your local US grocery store (no sponsored listings here). We list some features that may encourage you to try them next time they go on sale.
We think Challenge is a good choice in this category. It's readily available, has a good and reliable flavor, is hormone free, and won't break the bank even if you do a lot of baking. The fat content is around 80 percent. Challenge also offers Euro and Danish style butters, but they are not common in our area and we have not tried them.
We love Kerry Gold for its yellow color and delicious flavor. It's made from the milk of grass-fed cows, and is free of antibiotics and hormones. This Irish butter has 82 percent butterfat. It's a little spendy, but check out warehouse clubs for better pricing. (Plus they have great commercials that make you want to move to a farm in Ireland!)
We also like Plugra, a US brand of Euro style butter with 82 percent milk fat. It has good flavor and is antibiotic and hormone free. It is also available in most major supermarkets. The best feature here is its paler color. This makes it more appropriate for frostings and recipes that you are planning to color.
We've spent years trying to find kitchen tools and accessories that make our mixing better. You've probably done the same - and have a drawer full of gadgets to show for it!
Earlier this year, we downsized our gadgetry and ended up with just a few must-haves. Below is our list of "favorite things" we use with our stand mixer and for baking in general.
Item photos are links to Amazon (or our store) where you can purchase the item if you like. You may also find these items locally in home decorating, big-box stores or baking shops. If you purchase after using the link, Amazon will pay us a small referral fee.
1 - silicone measuring cups & mixing bowls
2 - ball whisk
3 - cookie scoops
If you don't own some of these, you have no idea what you're missing! We use several sizes to make different kinds of cookies. They also are great for portioning out meatballs, butter and sorbet. (We need bigger scoops for ice cream). This is the key to uniformly sized cookies.
4 - QUALITY METAL MEASURING CUPS AND SPOONS
We've had lots of measuring cups and spoons over the years, but decided to splurge on these heavy duty models nearly 20 years ago. It's worth it! While the plastic and thin metal items were donated, we can't live without these. Ours are from Williams Sonoma. Look for sturdy handles and standard styles. Avoid cute, fashion shapes and colors. You want to be sure they measure accurately and will last. They get a real workout!
5 - medium size fine-mesh sieve
6 - flat icing spatula
7 - glass 2-cup measuring cup
8 - thin, flat spatula
We have a great one in our store. We use it all the time, for jars, bowls and general scraping. They work well for cleaning batter and dough off your beaters.
9 - stand mixer
For heavy mixing, nothing is better! Not surprisingly, we use ours a lot. (We had 9 at one time, but we only use two or three on a regular basis).
For more casual baking, we suggest a tilt-head model. Tons of cute colors and it fits under most cabinets. If you're into cooking and baking and need more power, you may like a bowl-lift mixer. They come in LOTS of sizes and shapes and powers. If you plan to make lots of heavy doughs, pay the extra money for a more powerful motor (expressed in Watts).
Wholesale clubs offer great deals on KitchenAids this time of year.
10 - sideswipe beater
Of course, we have to include SideSwipe! If you have a mixer, we know you'll love this tool. You can purchase at our online store or on Amazon.com.
Recipes and mixing tips
Simple recipes for home cooks using SideSwipe + your mixer. Tips for using + caring for your mixer. Our goal = Helping you get a perfect mix + great taste.