Before I begin the parade of Thanksgiving recipes, I want to pause and comment on vanilla.
Good vanilla extract is essential to all the holiday baking we will be doing this next month. When I went gluten-free, I panicked about my vanilla extracts. Most of the literature out there seemed to suggest that I could never use vanilla extract again. If the distilled alcohol used to make the vanilla extract came originally from grains I could not eat, then that vanilla extract would make me sick. I searched for organic brands that labeled themselves as gluten-free. They weren’t always that good (more well-meaning than full of flavor), but I felt safe.
Since then, I have realized — and many would back me up on this — that the belief that pure vanilla extract could have gluten in it smacks of old thinking. In the past few years, scientists have tested grain alcohols and found that even those made from wheat, rye, and barley are gluten-free after they have survived the distillation process. Thus, I can drink Scotch, even though it is made from those terrible grains. When I discovered this last December, I had myself a celebration.
The same seems to be true for distilled vinegars. For decades, the common truth was that anything with distilled vinegar was unsafe for those of us who have to eat gluten-free. In fact, the first six months after my celiac diagnosis, I assiduously avoided anything with distilled vinegar. Now, however, it is becoming more and more clear that distilled vinegars — even those distilled through wheat, rye, and barley — are safe for celiacs. Rejoice.
Of course, the more awareness, the more research will be done. And, I think, the more we will find we can eat.
Since the distillation process in hard liquor and vinegars seems to kill the gluten proteins in the final product, it is safe to assume that the same is true for vanilla extract. Therefore, it should be that all vanilla extracts are gluten-free.
Don’t quote me on it. Try it for yourself. But that makes sense to me — and plenty of others out there.
If that is so, then oh good — I can just choose according to quality, instead. A great vanilla extract should have the heady richness of real vanilla beans, dark brown and giggly in the nose, depth upon depth with each layer of scent, as opposed to the thin, chemical smell of artifical vanilla. (Stay away from that artifical stuff. It’s nasty.)
If you would like to read a great piece on the different types of vanilla and their uses in baking, check out David Lebovitz’s piece from last year. The man knows.
Me? I’ve become overly partial to this bottle of vanilla extract: Nielsen-Massey’s Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla. Smooth and sweet, with little hints of something deeper, this vanilla enlivens every baked good I make. And with Christmas season — and my gluten-free sugar cut-out cookies — approaching, I made sure I am stocked up right now.
This company, which is one hundred years old this year and based in Illinois, works hard at gathering the best vanilla from around the world: Madagascar, Indonesia, Tahiti, and Mexico. They also have a vanilla bean paste that Joycelyn at the ever-beautiful Kuidaore swears by for her exquisite creations. That’s enough for me.
Even better, this summer Nielsen Massey was the first major ingredient supplier in the United States to be certified gluten-free. Any company that has Cynthia Kupper’s stamp of approval is all right with me.
Better yet, the taste. Oh my — I emit a low moan.
So, if you want to feel safe that you are using gluten-free vanilla products, and fold the best-tasting vanilla extract into your baked goods for Thanksgiving, go pick up a bottle of this. You won’t regret it.