Vanilla extract is a solution containing the flavor compound vanillin. Pure vanilla extract is made with an extraction from vanilla beans in an alcoholic solution. In order for a vanilla extract to be called pure, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that the solution contain a minimum of 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean per gallon. Double and triple strength (till 20 fold) vanilla extracts are available.
Vanilla extract is the most common form of vanilla used today. Mexican, Tahitian, Indonesian and Bourbon vanilla are the main varieties. Bourbon vanilla is special in that it does not contain bourbon. It is named for the period when the island of Reunion was ruled by the Bourbon kings of France. Vanilla extract is made by macerating/percolating chopped vanilla beans in ethyl alcohol and water for about 48 hours till it is deemed ready.
Natural vanilla flavoring is derived from real vanilla beans with little to no alcohol. The maximum amount that is usually found is only 2%-3%. Imitation vanilla extract is usually made by soaking alcohol into wood, which contains vanillin. Vanillin is chemically treated to mimic the taste of vanilla.
Vanilla originated in mid-southern region Mexico, where the Aztecs used it to accent the flavor of chocolate drinks. The Mexican emperor, Moctezuma II, introduced vanilla to the Spanish explorer Cortez, the man who later killed him, who brought it to Europe in the 16th century. The drink, made with vanilla pods and cocoa beans, became popular among the aristocracy in Europe. In 1602, a chemist for Queen Elizabeth I suggested that vanilla could be used alone as a flavoring.