While today's ice cream enthusiasts may view vanilla as a bland or generic offering, it used to be considered a very exotic flavor indeed. Because it became such a popular choice for consumers, vanilla became the standard bearer of the ice cream family, closely followed by chocolate and strawberry. The complex flavors created by the vanilla bean, a member of the orchid family, were never intended to become a generic base, however.
There are several variations on the standard vanilla flavor, including a particularly rich and creamy variety called French vanilla. While both traditional vanilla and French vanilla ice creams can still be used as a base for milkshakes and other dessert treats, there are a few differences between them. Traditional vanilla flavor is derived from the seeds of a vanilla bean pod, or at least a synthetic chemical equivalent called vanillin. French vanilla is more of an egg custard before freezing, and contains egg yolks for a richer consistency.
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Traditional vanilla ice cream is also likely to contain small flecks of vanilla beans, but French vanilla is often strained to remove these flecks. Because of the egg yolks, French vanilla ice cream also appears to be a deeper shade of yellow than traditional vanilla ice cream. French vanilla ice cream is often viewed as creamier in texture than many standard vanilla ice cream brands, which may be a result of starting with a custard base instead of cream.
There is no difference between the vanilla flavoring used in standard or French vanilla ice cream. Vanilla beans are often distilled in alcohol to extract their complex flavors, and this extract is often used instead of natural vanilla beans when producing ice cream in bulk. Some brands of vanilla ice cream have flecks of real vanilla bean added during the mixing process, but their contribution to the actual flavor may be negligible. French vanilla ice cream is made with the same form of vanilla, but with a different base containing egg yolk.
The difference between vanilla and French vanilla is more obvious in the fragrance industry than the ice cream industry. "French Vanilla" is often marketed as a fragrance unto itself, whereas a standard vanilla fragrance is commonly blended with other floral or fruity fragrances to create a pleasing hybrid scent for air fresheners and other odor-masking products. The French vanilla scent is generally sweet and slightly buttery, while a standard vanilla scent is more floral and subdued.
The next time you find yourself enjoying a bowl of vanilla or French vanilla ice cream, try to get a sense of all of its complex flavors and textures. You may never look at plain old vanilla ice cream the same way again.