Sweet, smooth, creamy vanilla. It’s the familiar flavor we turn to for comfort and indulgence. Vanilla graces our palates on countless occasions, from the casual fizz of a break time cola to the elegant tiers of a wedding cake. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a person who has never tasted vanilla because it’s found in so many regional cuisines and globally distributed food and beverage products. Vanilla flavor is everywhere!
While we have all tried vanilla – tasted its flavor in an ice cream sundae, enjoyed its aroma in a scented candle, savored its sweetness in the background of cookies, cakes, and pastries – few of us have actually evaluated vanilla. By “evaluated,” we mean taking vanilla apart, bit by beautiful nuanced bit, and uncovering its complexity, much like you would if sipping a glass of fine wine. This practice of analyzing a flavor, focused and methodically, to better understand its characterizing elements is a key principle of flavor sensory. It’s how we approach flavor innovation every day at Blue Pacific so we can tease out the very best notes that nature has to offer.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a sensory scientist or have a flavor lab to learn about vanilla sensory. You just need a handful of ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen, a curious mind, and some standard sensory tools (i.e. a nose and tongue). Download our Sensory@Home: Vanilla activity sheet, get your supplies together, and read on for some helpful vanilla tasting notes from Blue Pacific’s sensory team!
Preparing the tasting samples is easy – simply measure and mix using the basic equipment shown here. This quick activity is fun for individuals, couples, kids, and anyone that wants to learn more about their senses through delicious vanilla flavor!
NOTE: To get the most out of this exercise, you’ll want to put your science hat on and taste like a sensory professional. Below is our team’s suggested tasting sequence, along with notes on sensory perception.
1. Water + Vanilla
This sample is a great one to start with because it has the fewest distracting sensory elements. Also, it truly shows you the difference between vanilla aroma and vanilla flavor. Start by smelling the water solution…it should release a sweet, creamy, maybe even slightly woody aroma like oak barrels in a wine cellar. It will smell unmistakably like vanilla! Next, hold your nose closed while you take a sip. What do you “taste?” Release your nose and experience the sudden release of flavor on your palate. Now what do you perceive?
If the answer to the first question is “water” and the second one is “alcohol, rum, IDK”, you’re absolutely right! That’s because the flavors we think we are “tasting” are actually aromas being sensed through our mouths (see the diagram below for an example of how flavor travels from our mouth to our olfactory bulb). The other cool thing to note in this combo is how differently we perceive vanilla aroma compared to vanilla flavor. We smell the solution expecting something sweet and smooth, but encounter the opposite: water that’s a little bitter, a little medicinal, and not at all sweet and creamy. But just you wait! That discombobulated perception will quickly change in Sample #2…
2. Water + Vanilla + Sugar
A spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down! When sugar is added to water and pure vanilla extract, the expressive nature of natural vanilla flavor comes alive. Sugar delivers a sweet taste perception to our palate, so now the vanilla flavor truly does match its aroma. This sample comes across much sweeter and creamier, almost like cake frosting, with floral nuances and an elongated, sweet and smooth finish. It’s interesting to note that the aroma may seem slightly more subtle, as sugar changes the solution’s volatility a bit. Nonetheless, adding sugar creates a much more harmonious transition from vanilla aroma to vanilla flavor, and demonstrates just how well vanilla flavor and sweet taste marry together.
3. Water + Sugar
Let’s mix up a sample of plain sugar water for comparison (same Sample #2, but hold the pure vanilla extract). Take a sip and compare your sweetness perception of this sample to the vanilla sugar water one. What do you notice? The sugar water will be clean and sweet, but the vanilla sugar water will have a little extra “oomph.” That increase in sweetness on both the palate and the finish isn’t because vanilla tastes sweet (you already determined that isn’t the case when you tasted Sample #1) but because vanilla potentiates sweetness. In other words, our brains believe we are tasting something sweet because vanilla’s characterizing aromatics are perceived by our brains as sweet. This is why vanilla is often used in reduced sugar and protein powder applications to not only enhance sweet taste, but disguise bitter ingredients and off-notes, too.
Now would be a great time to take a swig of water and cleanse your palate for the next round of samples. (Note: To ensure unbiased and accurate evaluations, our flavor sensory experts always rinse and spit after every sample – if you’re up for it, we invite you to do the same!)
4. Milk + Sugar
Let’s move on to our milk sample set, which is a good basis for demonstrating why pure vanilla extract works so well in dairy and dairy alternative applications.
You can use whatever milk base you like – nonfat cow’s milk, full fat oatmilk, even goat milk – and get the same general effect. So use what you have on hand! The important thing to remember is that the milk must be unsweetened and unflavored for this to work.
Take a quick sip of your milk, pre-sugar addition, and note its characteristics. We used a full fat oatmilk and found it to have a pleasant natural oat flavor with nuances of buttercream and a slightly salty, delicately sweet taste. Now add the sugar and see how the profile changes. In our sample, the sugar didn’t really affect the aroma or flavor of the oatmilk, but it did cover up the salty taste and noticeably increased the sweetness perception. Time to add a little pure vanilla extract and see what happens!
5. Milk + Sugar + Vanilla
Bring on the vanilla flavor! When we added vanilla to the sweetened oatmilk, we immediately noticed the change to the aroma. The grainy oat notes that were present in the original, unsweetened and unflavored oatmilk were reduced. Instead, a sweeter and more rounded profile emerged, almost like a fresh muffin or scone. On the palate, it was both sweeter and creamier, with a rummy-floral flavor flecked by hints of dried fruit and sweet brown spice. WOW!! Such a difference. The sweet taste and warm vanilla flavor combined with the milk base to create a much longer, smoother finish compared to Sample #4. Clearly, vanilla flavor has a positive effect on the perception of sweet taste and creamy texture, even though pure vanilla extract is neither sweet nor creamy. Could this be why it works so flawlessly as an ice cream flavor?
For fun, we went ahead and whipped up one more sample of Milk + Sugar + Vanilla, except we doubled the pure vanilla extract to see what would happen. The aroma blossomed with a sweet caramel quality that pretty much covered up all of the grainy oat notes. The sample tasted MUCH sweeter and was exceptionally creamy; it almost felt like we were sipping on melted ice cream! There was an intense vanilla flavor characterized by rum, sweet brown spice, caramel, and alcohol (vanilla extract is, by FDA standard, a minimum of 35% alcohol). Even the best vanilla flavor can be too much of a good thing if usage levels are too high…and we thought that was the case here. Once you start to get that alcohol flavor and combination of burn/evaporative cooling sensation, it’s time to back off a bit.
Looking For a Great Vanilla?
Blue Pacific produces vanilla flavor for all kinds of food and beverage applications. Whether you need powdered vanilla flavor for a nutritional beverage mix, vanilla WONF for candies, or a premium pure vanilla extract for gourmet ice cream and frozen desserts, we have you covered. Contact us for information about the many different flavor profiles we offer. We also invite you to explore our NEW Kilimanjaro Vanilla, a sustainably sourced pure vanilla extract from Tanzania with exceptional quality and a purpose-led mission. By using Kilimanjaro Vanilla in your products, you can support sustainable futures for vanilla and vanilla farmers, while contributing to critical conservation efforts in Africa.
Watch our Kilimanjaro Vanilla Discovery Video to learn more: