I came across this controversy quite by accident, and I have to admit that I didn’t have the least idea about it before last year. I am quite a firm believer in using natural, minimally processed, if at all, pure and natural foods if possible. Because of food allergies in the family, and our own zabiha lifestyle, it’s become a habit to read labels for just about every single thing that I buy. Once while shopping for groceries, I thought that it’s possible that a name brand will be more ‘pure’ than the generic vanilla extract that I’m buying. I started checking the ingredients which were more or less the same, but they all contained a large percentage of alcohol. I decided to see if I could make my own vanilla extract at home.
On doing some research, I found out that if I wanted to make vanilla extract, I would have to buy a bottle of vodka, soak some vanilla beans in it and Viola! My own vanilla extract!
I know that in such cases, the argument that is always made is that it is only a very small, almost negligible quantity of alcohol that would end up in the dish, as most recipes usually call for no more than 2-3 tsp of vanilla extract.
Ok. But what bothers me is that if I wanted to make it, I would have to purchase alcohol, which is completely forbidden in Islam. So, I can’t purchase alcohol to make it, but I’ll go and buy a bottle of extract and that’s OK? Something about this reasoning doesn’t sit well with me.
If the only option I had of putting vanilla flavor in my desserts was through vanilla extract, then possibly, I would be more open to going ahead and using it, using the ‘negligible quantity’ excuse. But it’s not. There is always vanillin, which is artificial vanilla, but I also have another far, far superior option- using real vanilla beans! When I have the real thing, then why should I even consider a doubtful, alcohol infused product?
So my answer to the question, ‘Is vanilla extract halal or haram?’ is- why even bother with vanilla extract?
Before this incident, I used to be very intimidated by vanilla beans. Whenever I saw them in recipes, my mind would shut down and I would run for my bottle of vanilla extract. But since I learnt about how extract is made, I decided to see what life would be like without it.
I ordered vanilla beans online, as they are not very readily available in stores. I read up on how to use and store them, and started using them. I absolutely loved them!!!
Where to start?!!! Vanilla beans are long, thin, dark brown beans, that have a moist, velvety exterior. The inside of the bean is chock full of tiny black seeds, smaller even than grains of sand. These seeds are scraped out and added to desserts. The seeds will be visible as dark flecks in the dish, bearing testimony that real vanilla bean has been used.
The best quality Madagascar vanilla beans are moist, plump and pliable and they have a strong, rich aroma. They will be wrinkled but not cracked. These are the best kind to use for cooking/baking. Grade B vanilla beans have considerably less moisture than Grade A beans and may be considerably cracked. These are suitable for making extract, but are not preferred for cooking.
Some recipes, especially custards, may also call for simmering the entire bean in the sauce. This also imparts the vanilla flavor into the dish.
I do realize that giving up vanilla extract is a big decision. It is used in almost all sweet baked goods in the market. Cakes, pies, cookies, breads, tarts, the list is endless.
Giving up all these might not be very easy; it might not even be necessary. But when we have a much better substitute in vanilla beans, can’t we at least switch to those at home?
There is a general impression that vanilla beans are extremely expensive. Vanilla is the second costliest spice in the world, after saffron. It naturally follows that vanilla extract is not the cheapest product out there either, Let me tell you from personal experience that since I purchased vanilla beans months ago, I am still only on my fourth one, in the time that I went through bottles and bottles of vanilla extract.
I once heard someone say that vanilla extract is too expensive, implying that it is expensive beyond the possibility of being considered an affordable or logical substitute. I was quite shocked, since when I think about the thousands and thousands that that person spends on clothes, bags and shoes, $5.73 for 5 beans doesn’t sound that outrageous.
But to be fair, for most people, the initial reaction is always resistance. And that’s ok. With time, ideas and opinions can change. Just keep in mind that if you’re doing something to please God, then something as everyday as baking a cake becomes an act of worship.
When I noticed how long my vanilla beans last, I did some rough calculations:
1 tsp of vanilla extract is equal to using about 2 inches of a vanilla bean.
1 bottle of McCormick Vanilla Extract: $1.99. (Contains 6 tsp)
7 vanilla beans on Amazon: $6.95. So, 2 vanilla beans (equal to about 7 tsp of extract): $1.99.
Who says vanilla beans are more expensive?
My opinion is that we shouldn’t get overawed by the general impression that is out there. Vanilla beans are not something that only chefs can use and rich people can afford. They are easy to use and cheaper than extract- why? Because not only does the same amount cost less, but you’re also paying for vanilla in its 100% pure form.
I’m just trying to say that it is easy. Purchasing and using a vanilla bean opened my eyes to this thing of beauty. Without fail, every single time that I use it, I marvel at this wondrous creation of Allah’s! Vanilla is arguably the world’s favorite flavoring! Kids love it… it’s exotic, warm, rich, and the aroma that the bean leaves on your hands after you use it…!!!!! Try it for this extremely enriching experience… touch and feel this enthralling example of God’s creation! You will be awestruck at how Allah has concealed this treasure of flavor and aroma inside such an unassuming facade of the pod. But to be honest, the moist pod is no less enticing than the seeds that lie within.
Aren’t we always trying to buy all the best things? The best furniture, TV, car, clothes. Well, vanilla beans are the best when it comes to vanilla flavor, they are halal, affordable and anyone can use them. Win, win, win, win!
I buy my vanilla beans from Amazon with free shipping! You can click here to see buying options on Amazon.
How to use vanilla beans:
Vanilla beans come in vacuum sealed packages or glass vials to preserve their freshness.
The beans will be moist, and this makes them easy to handle.
To use, take a bean and split it open with a sharp knife. Scrape the dark seeds out and use as required.
If you’re making a smoothie or a milkshake using a high speed blender, you can just chop the bean up and use the whole thing.
I do not discard the used pod. I use it to flavor custards, or if the recipe calls for warm water, I soak it in the water.
You can also stick a used bean into a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar that you can use in desserts.
How to store vanilla beans:
Vanilla beans should be stored in air tight containers to keep them from drying out. I just use a ziplock bag. You can also store them in air tight glass jars or purchase glass vials made for storing vanilla beans at beanilla.com.
The beans also need to be aired regularly. I use them enough to have to open the bag off and on and keep them aired.
What to do if your vanilla bean dries out:
You can rehydrate the bean in warm water. If I have a dried out bean, I only rehydrate as much as I need for the recipe. I don’t want to deal with storing a wet bean and it catching mold.
I am so glad that this halal issue was raised, because it led me to this spellbinding, thing of beauty! Do give vanilla beans a try! You’ll never go back to extract! And spread the pure, halal goodness!
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