What is Vanilla Powder?
Vanilla powder has been around for some time (earliest sold products are around 1918) and has evolved much like most vanilla products. We'll explore the various types, what their applications are, and what to watch out for. As with many vanilla products, they come with a "buyer beware" stipulation.
Vanilla powder as it was first introduced, is made from a few simple ingredients:
Dextrose/Maltodextrin - An artificial sweetener derived from corn. In the case of maltodextrin, made from other plants such as rice, potato, or corn.
Vanilla Extractives - Often extracts taken from the vanilla bean, most common vanilla oleoresin.
Anti-caking agents - Any of the Calcium/aluminum silicates out there to prevent the product from sticking together.
The typical use for this type of powder is to sprinkle it on any finished baked goods. It adds a sweet and subtle vanilla flavor since it is mostly comprised of an artificial sweetener. Occasionally it will be added into frostings since the color change will be nominal and it adds very little liquid. It also adds very little vanilla flavor. It can also be added to baked goods before baking since many of the flavors will not be lost due to evaporation. Better alternatives to using vanilla powder such as this when baking if less liquid is needed, would be to use a higher "fold" extract. Price range on this is usually $1/oz.
Vanilla bean powder using whole vanilla beans has also been in use for many years. Most typically in the manufacturing industry, however it has been sold by any number of individuals to end consumers. We'll take a look at it's history and recent trends.
Whole vanilla bean powder has been used in the manufacturing industry for countless applications. There are too many to list, but one example is Chai Tea. Beans are coarsely ground so when steeping, vanilla flavorings are infused into the tea creating a very warm and inviting aroma and flavor. Potpourri is another great example when added to a sachet. However, as with many things vanilla, there is a darker side to vanilla powder. Let's take a look below.
There has been a practice for about 20 years now that has been used to deceive the consumer. Much of the "whole" vanilla beans are ground from spent vanilla beans. Almost all of the spent beans used come from beans that were used in vanilla extract. Once filtered, the beans are removed, dried in an oven, and ground into powder. Most flavorings are gone by that point and what you are left with is fiber and organic matter. This practice is usually done either as a courtesy or for profit from extract manufacturers, to manufacturers of other products. These powders are then added to things like chai tea, or to ice cream to give the appearance of being made with "whole vanilla beans". I won't get into the labelling requirements of ice cream and vanilla, but they are very few and this practice falls within legal limits for labelling requirements. A similar practice has developed in the end consumer market. US suppliers are taking this same product and selling it under the same guise. What is purchased at a premium price, is no more than waste that has been repurposed.
There are products out there made from whole, unused vanilla beans. Be ready to pay a hefty price as most of the products go for $15-30/oz. The "spent" variety is on average $6/oz.
As an end consumer, you may wonder what the uses are for whole bean vanilla powder. If you ask any of the manufacturers of these products they will tell you "everything that you would use vanilla extract for"! That is about as far from the truth as you could get. There are VERY limited applications for whole vanilla powder. You "can" use it in the same as you would vanilla extract. The end result though will typically be bitter and a gritty texture, since the powder will not dissolve in liquid. Ideally, it should be infused into a liquid like tea or coffee. You wouldn't add coffee grounds directly into a cup of hot water and drink it, would you? Maybe you would. Most would not unless you like eating the coffee grounds.
Whenever purchasing whole vanilla bean powder, always be sure to ask whomever is selling it on those finer details to make the most informed purchase possible.