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I can't count the times I have heard that vanilla brings out the flavour of other foods. For example it "makes chocolate taste more chocolatey," etc... I have also heard that it's the only spice that does this (enhance the flavour of other spices/foods).

Is this true? If so, by what mechanism does it do this?


Here are some places online that mention this alleged property of vanilla without explaining how it works:

  • "Vanilla is used for its sweetness and its ability to enhance other flavors." (eHow)
  • "Vanilla delivers characteristic and complex flavor notes to hundreds of types of food. With fruit- and dairy-based products, it enhances flavor by cutting acid notes, bringing out creamy notes and rounding out flavor systems." (preparedfoods.com)
  • "Add vanilla to give new 'life' to flavorless seasonal fruits or other foods that need a flavor boost. Did you know that chocolate by itself tastes 'flat' which is why it usually contains vanilla?" (vanilla.com)
  • ...Chocolate simply wouldn’t taste like chocolate without vanilla. “Chocolate tends to be somewhat dull on its own. Vanilla transforms it,” says Patricia Rain, author of a new book, Vanilla: A Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor & Fragrance. “Vanilla really enhances the flavor notes of chocolate,” agrees John Scharffenberger, CEO of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in Berkeley, CA, where they prize vanilla so highly that they grind whole vanilla beans with cocoa nibs to make their chocolates.

    (vegetariantimes.com)

  • "Vanilla is one of those ingredients, like salt and fat, that complements and brings out the flavor of other ingredients." (Wiki Answers)

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I have never heard that about vanilla. Can you cite a reference? I would say that it can add depth to a dish, and can compliment flavors, but I'm skeptical if it can bring out flavors like I'm thinking salt does. –  MStodd Jun 28 '12 at 22:43
    
I wonder if I can add vanilla to a salty or spicy dish. I am going try this out on a mild coconut-heavy curry. –  nalply Jul 28 '12 at 10:33
    
Yes, vanilla can be used as a savoury spice. In fact I remember reading, in On Food and Cooking perhaps, that it is only recently that it began to be thought of as an exclusively sweet spice. –  Swoogan Feb 6 at 17:07

5 Answers 5

Francois Chartier, author of "Taste Buds and Molecules" wrote an interesting blog on vanilla that covered how the complex flavor properties round out and temper stronger flavors as well as mute very spicy flavors. Here is a link to that blog - it filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of vanilla:

UPDATE: Oops. Link is no longer available. Learned my lesson to put the important info in the answer and also include the link. :-(

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Sadly that link is now a 404, and archive.org doesn't have it cached. –  Peter Taylor Feb 5 at 16:26
    
And I think it's really gone from the internet - I found facebook.com/Tastebudsandmolecules/posts/244592455673904, which contains a snippet of the text. Googling that snippet doesn't find anything. –  Jefromi Feb 5 at 19:26

I'm not sure if there is a scientific explanation for this. I also think it's more that vanilla enhances the overall flavor profile of the dish rather than actually bringing out other flavors. Salt, on the other hand, does enhance flavors.

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I don't understand your answer, what is the difference between "enhances the overall flavor profile of the dish" and "actually bringing out other flavors"? –  rumtscho Jun 19 '12 at 21:49
    
By "enhancing the overall flavor profile of the dish" I mean that it just adds more flavor and depth of flavor. By "actually bringing out the flavors" I mean that salt helps you taste other flavors. –  scientifics Jun 20 '12 at 13:35
    
+1 - Salt and vanilla are spices –  Dave Jul 18 '12 at 14:08

Vanilla is a flavor enhancer or modifier like all spices. I can understand why it would be singled out as "the only one that does that" because it is so commonly used in many parts of the world. Salt held this lofty position in the past at the head of the table. Black pepper was also assigned many incredible properties when it was first brought to Europe. Vanilla gives food a richer, fuller more savory flavor to a dish but there are other spices that can do that in a different way. I like vanilla and use it in dishes most would not think, like Chili. But I have found nothing brings out the flavor of a decadent chocolate cake like the addition of a dark yeasty beer. I would not use vanilla in a citrus salad. And to chocolate I would say that its the sugar and fat that makes it more "chocolatey".

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Vanilla can mask bitter, and spicey tastes. It can also bring out more fragrant tastes, and sweetness. Some people who use vanilla extract, however, can find that some flavors come out more simply because they're being dissolved by the alcohol found in vanilla extract which brings things like lipids to the outside more and make them more easily reach the pallate. Just like serving cheese at room temperature so the butterfat spreads on the palate better.

I believe this is one of the reasons, actually, that people often associate silky textures with vanilla. And of course because the most common ice cream is vanilla.

So I guess the answer you're looking for is, kinda. But there isn't any spice or ingredient(even MSG) that will enhance flavors indefinitely. You'll find that technique is just as important as ingredient. Refine your technique before you go messing with flavors.

As for alcohol bringing out flavor, it sounds weird but it is a technique. Whether the alcohol is cooked off or not it changes the way ingredients hit the palate. For example, I use cognac in chocolate mousse to bring out the cocoa butter.

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This answer just repeats the common wisdom. The OP asked for evidence that the common wisdom is true or false, not for another person repeating hearsay. –  rumtscho Feb 6 at 13:00

Well it is like sugar it has not been proven but is easy to taste the difference that it does enhance the taste of other ingredients

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Not only doesn't sugar enhance the taste of other ingredients, it masks/dampens it. –  rumtscho Jun 21 '12 at 11:49
    
Hmm according to the chief chef at Noma Copenhagen that ain't true –  Lars Nielsen Jun 21 '12 at 12:10
    
Can you provide a reference? –  talon8 Jun 21 '12 at 13:24
    
Unfortunaly he said in a TV-Show on DR (Danish Raido) - But I do not recall the title –  Lars Nielsen Jun 21 '12 at 13:30
    
I'm guessing that he was actually talking about salt, which may have been misheard/misremembered as sugar. –  Aaronut Jun 22 '12 at 0:35

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