Real vanilla/almond "extract", minus the alcohol content?
August 3, 2005 2:29 PM   Subscribe

FoodFilter: I love vanilla/almond/etc. extract. But I cannot have even tiny amounts of alcohol in my food (for religious reasons). But I want real flavor. Googling has taught me that alcohol is put in all extracts to preserve and to prevent evaporation. But could there truly be no other way? How do I get avoid the bleh imitation stuff while still getting no alcohol in my flavoring?
posted by parma to Food & Drink (36 answers total)
Use real vanilla beans? And almond paste?
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:34 PM on August 3, 2005

Does it count if the alcohol evaporates in cooking? What kind of religion is this?
posted by norm at 2:38 PM on August 3, 2005

Real vanilla beans, yep. And I've recently learned of vanilla powder, which is said to be superior to alcohol-laden extract.

Almond, I'm not so sure. I'd try looking on gourmet sites.
posted by Specklet at 2:39 PM on August 3, 2005

I make my own vanilla extract, but it starts with vodka, so that's out. I don't know what you'd substitute, but perhaps AA or other resources have recipes for making it with a substitute? I don't think it will be as good though.

I see plenty of mention of "non-alcoholic extract" on the Web, but suppose they just mean the imitation ones that you don't like.

Just curious: How do you know you love the extracts if you're unable to have them? Or is the religious restriction new to you?
posted by GaelFC at 2:41 PM on August 3, 2005

Response by poster: (If it evaporates, norm, then no problem. But with recipes for sweets that don't involve cooking, I'm not sure I can get the alcohol out that way.)
posted by parma at 2:42 PM on August 3, 2005

Response by poster: Just curious: How do you know you love the extracts if you're unable to have them? Or is the religious restriction new to you?
Well, I just know because I have had them a few times without knowing - woops!
posted by parma at 2:44 PM on August 3, 2005

The non-alcoholic extracts I've tried have been hideous. I use vanilla beans (or Penzey's vanilla sugar, where it'll work) or other non-extract type things. Without knowing what you are cooking, I'd wonder if ground almonds would do for you?
posted by QIbHom at 2:53 PM on August 3, 2005

There are some companies that make alcohol-free extracts. I can't vouch for the taste since I've never tried them--but they are out there.
posted by divka at 2:57 PM on August 3, 2005

Vanilla sugar is really good - just get hold of a real vanilla pod or two, put it in a pot with some caster sugar (possibly what you call 'superfine' in the US), seal and leave for a while. Hard to control how vanilla-y the final recipe will be, though.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:00 PM on August 3, 2005

Second the vanilla sugar. Easy and yummy.

For almond flavor you can perhaps use almond oil? (The kind from roasted almonds, not "sweet almond oil" which has very little flavor and used as a neutral cooking oil.)
posted by desuetude at 3:17 PM on August 3, 2005

i also would like to know what religion this is.
posted by keswick at 3:19 PM on August 3, 2005

Me, too. What religion? My mother-in-law is an extremely conservative Mormon and would laugh at the idea of shunning extracts.
posted by peep at 3:24 PM on August 3, 2005

The alcohol is in extracts for the purpose of extraction. You can often dissolve more flavor components in a solvent like ethanol than you can in water.

That said, I almost always use synthetic vanilla flavoring (pure vanillin solution) which comes in a clear or brown-colored water solution (no alcohol). Cook's Illustrated magazine has done some blind testing that indicated that the artificial stuff is just as good as the real thing in most cooked recipes.

In recipes where you want a delicate flavor, you're better off using a real vanilla bean, anyway. Try vanilla sugar, or scrape the seeds out of a pod.

You can "distill" off essentially all of the alcohol in other extracts (e.g. almond) by adding the extract to a warm substance (say, some larger volume of non-alcoholic liquid, or a melted sugar) and letting it sit at hot, but not boiling temperature for an extended period of time (I think at least 30 minutes should do it). This will evaporate off a lot of the alcohol.
posted by rxrfrx at 3:36 PM on August 3, 2005

Just a guess, since Dearborn supposedly has the largest Muslim population in the US, but if the alcohol in extracts is identical to the alcohol in wine/liquor, it's haram (unlawful.) Sources: 1,2,3

On preview, what ?? said.
posted by sysinfo at 3:40 PM on August 3, 2005

This site lists substitutions you can use to avoid extracts. Essentially, it seems you use the straight oil in very small amounts. (I suppose the extract is just the oil diluted in a solvent.)
posted by luneray at 4:38 PM on August 3, 2005

Here are a couple more options for vanilla - vanilla powder, and "natural vanilla flavor" which is an extract made without alcohol according to this page.
posted by O9scar at 4:41 PM on August 3, 2005

Response by poster: Yes, I keep to Islamically kosher, or "halal".

Easy there folks, remember that religion doesn't (and probably never did) make too much logical sense. Arguments based on logic aren't going to mix too well with religious dogma.

Agreed with your second statement odinsdream - they often do not. But to single out Islam - that might not be fair. Plenty of laws (granted, this is a satire piece) in all three monotheistic faiths, as well as other faiths, have "God said so - and if we believe in the overall faith, we are willing to be humble enough to to recognize that we cannot know as much as X higher being, and will accept that He is wiser"-type of rules.

Thanks for the suggestions guys - these sound great. Especially the vanilla powder and the real vanilla bean suggestions.
posted by parma at 4:46 PM on August 3, 2005

Lets not question parma's religion. Or presume parma is Muslim.

I recommend finding out what other members of your religious group do. (We might be able to better help you if we knew the religion.)
posted by Count Ziggurat at 4:48 PM on August 3, 2005

Are we done harassing the dude over his religion? Treat this as an engineering problem, and treat "no alcohol whatsoever" as a design constraint for our solution.

parma: For vanilla, you can use pure vanillin/water solutions, as rfrfrx mentioned. Whether it's synthesized or extracted, that single compound "is" the taste of vanilla. Since you only need that one chemical to instill the vanilla flavor, you should do absolutely wonderfully with that.

Or, if you're looking for the whole gamut of vanilla-based flavors, use a bean. It'll cost you, but they're quite tasty, and full of other volatiles that do contribute to the taste in subtle/delicate things. But, with most sweets, you're overpowering those secondary volatiles with the tastes of sugar, flour, and other flavorings and you may as well just toss in synthetic vanillin.

The other extracts, however, may prove more difficult.

Here are a couple of options. I haven't tried any of them, but I'm working from knowledge of chemistry and my many endeavors to extract psychoactive alkaloids from plants:

Make your own extracts using a different solvent. One possible solvent is safflower oil, which has almost no flavor of its own. Puree the thing you'd like the extract of, and let it soak in the oil for a few days in the dark in a tightly-sealed container.

Then, filter the oil through a coffee filter into your storage container. You're almost definitely want to use some sort of vacuum filtration, otherwise it's going to take forever.

You're definitely not going to wind up with the same result as you would with an ethanol extraction, but it should pick up the essence of the flavor. You're going to have to monkey around with recipes, also, both to account for the varying levels of flavor in the extract, and to account for the added oils you're putting in.

Another possibility is to purchase the standard extracts, and pre-evaporate the alcohol from them. The simplest way to do this is simply to put the measured extract in the mixing bowl as the first ingredient, and wait for the alcohol to evaporate off. Then, do your mixing as normal... hopefully the stuff you throw in the bowl afterward will redisolve the volatiles.

Another option might be to soak strips of unbleached, "natural" hemp- or rice-based blotter paper in a measured amount of the extract. Use enough paper to fully absorb the extract you measured out (I'd actually use a bit more extract than is required, were I you). Remove the paper, and hang it up to dry from clothespins or alligator clips. When it's no longer wet, the ethanol is gone. It may feel moist, but if it feels oily instead of wet, that moisture is probably just essential oils.

You can then simply throw these papers into your bowl at the right time, mix them around a lot, and then remove them before you make the final prep or cooking. Actually, if you're doing a recipe that you run through a food processor, and the mixture gets homogenized anyway, you could probably just leave the paper in. It's edible, and if it's chopped up small enough, undetectable.

I make no guarantees that this will work, but I suspect that it might. And, again, you'll need to monkey around with the recipes to adjust for non-standard concentrations.

I'd suggest you do some testing, but you can't test the original extract to compare, so I'll volunteer my heathen palate.

If you'll send me a list of flavors that you use, I'll be glad to experiment on a couple of them and develop a methodology for you, if one exists. I'm poor, though, so I'd probably only do one oil extraction and one evaporation test. Or, if you'd like to ship me the ingredients, I'll do as many as you like. Email me if you're interested.
posted by Netzapper at 4:49 PM on August 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

At the Whole Foods market near where I live, they have alcohol free extracts, clearly labeled as such in the spice section. Here is a list of stores in Michigan. I've used their extracts. They are fine in baked goods, not so good in non-baked goods.
Even if there is not a whole foods near you, other health food stores should have similar products. They usually have a glycerin base.

I also second vanilla sugar. Just take a pound or so of sugar, put it in an airtight container with a fresh vanilla bean. Let sit for a week or so, and you have vanilla sugar. If you want to go whole hog, you can then scrape out the seeds of the pod by slitting it down the middle and scraping with a knife, and including the seeds in the vanilla sugar.
posted by Philbo at 5:07 PM on August 3, 2005

posted by 김치 at 5:24 PM on August 3, 2005

I'm a big ole' atheist myself, but I'll still always stand up and say that if an individual decides that they choose to follow strict and possibly scientifically illogical laws as part of their observance of their spirituality, that's completely their right, and no amount of picking apart the logic behind it is going to change the value to that person of keeping that commitment to themself, their community, and whatever they perceive as their higher power and/or meaning of the universe. So long as they're not limiting what people besides themself can do with their bodies or learn in school, more power to 'em.
posted by matildaben at 5:28 PM on August 3, 2005

Muslims aren't just prohibited from drinking alcohol, but from benefitting the alcohol industry, or benefitting from it, in any way, including producing, selling, buying, serving, etc.
posted by leapingsheep at 5:37 PM on August 3, 2005

I should point out that alcohol does not necessarily boil out completely. This is dealing with more alcohol than in a preserve but one would have to assume in the non-lab environment of the kitchen the possibility of even a few molecules of ethanol would exist, violating the conditions of this post.
posted by geoff. at 6:28 PM on August 3, 2005

If you go down the path to use real vanilla beans, you might be surprised by the cost of the real stuff in your local super-market. (The local QFC here had a crack-vial with two bean-pods in it for ten bucks).

Fortunately, I found an online alternative for ordering them in bulk. I got 25 pods for $11.00 or so here. It was fun getting my mail that day... I could smell the beans before I opened the mailbox.

Good luck.
posted by jimmereeno at 7:11 PM on August 3, 2005

For timing of vanilla sugar, I reckon on two weeks. I make a lot of Scots Tablet, so I go through much vanilla sugar.

Vanilla pods seemingly last forever. I've had sets last me for years with no degradation in flavour they impart to the sugar. I only change 'em if I've dropped them somewhere damp, or bits start falling off.
posted by scruss at 7:14 PM on August 3, 2005

You can find a really good selection of different flavorings - in many forms - at Nature's Flavors. I am not shilling for them, and I am sure there are other sites with comparable products.
posted by John Smallberries at 7:36 PM on August 3, 2005

Second what Philbo said about alcohol-free vanilla and almond extracts available from Whole Foods. I have bought and used them and they worked fine although I prefer the volatile effect of the extracts made with alcohol, myself.
posted by Lynsey at 9:20 PM on August 3, 2005

I suspect the reason people wanted to know Parma's religion was to discover the exact parameters of the prohibition. (For example, whether it's OK to take an alcohol extract and remove the alcohol before eating, as many people have suggested.) It's easier than getting Parma to type in a whole religious text.
posted by hattifattener at 11:06 PM on August 3, 2005

If you're trying to avoid trace amounts of alcohol, then the finding alcohol-free vanilla extract is the least of your problems. You basically need to give up food altogether.
posted by euphorb at 11:56 PM on August 3, 2005

Things to be aware of are that there many flavors that are alcohol soluble which are NOT oil or water soluble. For example, when cooking mushrooms with other ingredients, you can get some of the flavors to mix with oil, but some alcohol (sherry, white wine, etc) draws out much more.

For almond, if you can adapt the recipe, just lightly toast and grind your almonds even to the point of making almond butter. Remove a little oil from your recipe and use that. If you're making a cake/cookies, grind the almonds with the sugar in the recipe and use that for the sugar.

Keep in mind that extracts are a shortcut that has been created by people. The path that you want to take is "get the flavor from X into Y". The shortcut was created because extracts are convenient, keep well, flavor well, and can be made well ahead of time. You're simply choosing not to take this shortcut. Put the flavor in directly. If you want mint flavor, use the plant(s). If you want nut flavor, use the nuts or their oils.

If you're in the northern hemisphere, now is the time to buy herbs to hang up and dry. Buy mint while it's cheap and dry it out in bunches. Seal them up and keep in a dark place and your ready for winter. Try boiling small red potatoes with a whole bunch of dried mint. Nothing like it.

And do avoid the imitation vanilla. It's made from wood chips (among other things, some of which are carcinogenic).
posted by plinth at 6:21 AM on August 4, 2005

I suspect that alternate solvents for the extract will not work well---there are very good chemical reasons why alcohol is the best choice for vanillin and why water and oil are not suitable. Unfortunatly, the other solvents a chemist would think to use here, acetone, dichloromethane and acetonitrile, are farily poisonous, so they're out, though commercially, that's probably how the powders are made. Not something you want to try at home though.

Your best bet is to buy beans. They are expensive yes, but a little does go a long way. Half a bean will replace the vanilla extract in most recipies. You may have to experiment a bit, some beans are more potent than others, but that's a starting point.

Note that for most baking, you need only the inner mushy part of the bean. The dry husk isn't as strongly flavoured, nor does it have a texture that works well in smooth or creamy recipies. That doen't mean that you discard them though. Dry the empty husks and gind them in a spice/coffee grinder. Mix with confectioners sugar (or superfine or berry sugar) to get vanilla sugar. A bean husk is also amazing ground up with your coffee in the morning: use about 1 husk per 6 cups.
posted by bonehead at 6:41 AM on August 4, 2005

plinth: The chemical, vanillin, is precisely identical in both synthetic vanilla flavoring and natural vanilla beans. The fact that it was made with wood chips does not make it dangerous: by the time it gets to you, the only thing there is vanillin, which is decidedly non-harmful.

Truth be told, I have greater faith in the safety of the synthetic process. I know that when I get my vanillin, it's going to be 99.99% vanillin, and ± .01% random junk. Compare that to a vanilla bean, which is around 2.0% vanillin, and 98.0% random trash. I trust a lab chemist more than I trust Malaysian jungles to produce a non-harmful product for me.

Wait, you don't think that the chemical remembers its parents being carcinogenic, do you?
posted by Netzapper at 6:43 AM on August 4, 2005

parma , mail me.
posted by sgt.serenity at 9:19 AM on August 4, 2005

Today at a Carribean market I found a series of extracts of all flavors, including vanilla and almond, made without any alcohol. They were called "VeriPure", and were a product of Trinidad. I have no idea how they taste, but they were quite inexpensive. parma you can email me for details. I would be happy to pick some up and send them to you, but you have no email listed.
posted by OmieWise at 11:55 AM on August 14, 2005

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