Whether you’re churning ice cream, mixing a cocktail, baking a cake, or preparing fresh fish, vanilla can elevate the taste of any food or drink.
And “the finest pure vanilla in the world” is made right here on the North Shore. Just ask Beth Nielsen, chief culinary officer of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas and a member of the company’s third generation.
“Vanilla isn’t just a flavor – it’s a flavor enhancer,” says Beth, who runs the business along with brothers Craig Nielsen, CEO, and Matt Nielsen, COO. Founded in Sterling, Ill., in 1907, they relocated to Chicago in 1917 and Lake Forest in 1984, finally settling in Waukegan, in 1992. Nielsen-Massey is currently undergoing a 24,000-square-foot expansion that will include manufacturing and warehouse office space as well as a testing and demonstration kitchen.
N-M produces a variety of pure vanilla products made from high quality, top-grade beans using a unique cold-extraction process (which can take up to 5-6 weeks) that gently extracts more than 300 flavor components from a single vanilla bean.
Vanilla has been cultivated in Mexico since before the Aztecs, where it was combined with cacao to concoct a drink enjoyed by the wealthy. Then, in 1602, Queen Elizabeth’s apothecary suggested that vanilla be used as a flavoring all by itself, and “the versatility of the exotic bean was finally uncovered,” the company concludes.
Today, vanilla beans are grown in four main parts of the world. Madagascar (known for the purest, highest quality vanilla) and Indonesia produce 90 percent of the world’s vanilla bean crop. Mexico and Tahiti provide only a small percentage of the harvest.
Nielsen-Massey’s own offerings hail from these locales. They include Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Sugar (its newest product), Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla, Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Powder, Pure Vanilla Extract Blend, Pure Vanilla Extracts, Organic Vanilla Extract, Tahitian Vanilla Extract, Mexican Pure Vanilla and Whole Vanilla Beans.
Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste, an award-winning product, can be used “any time you want to have pure vanilla flavor while having the aesthetic of the vanilla seeds,” says Beth, who offers the following “super simple” uses: Put a tablespoon in whipped cream, yogurt or butter, or, when making crème brûlée, replace one vanilla bean with one teaspoon of bean paste. “I also love brushing a thin layer on any fish and poultry I cook, either on the grill or broiler – it forms a wonderful thin shell around it and seals in the moisture with a hint of vanilla,” Beth adds, further noting that some people even eat the paste “straight out of the jar like honey.” For more inspiration, check out Beth’s recipe for Salmon with Vanilla Balsamic Marinade.
The company also makes pure coffee, chocolate, lemon, almond and peppermint extracts, plus rose water and orange blossom water – Nielsen has been working on creative sweet and savory applications, mixology and skincare solutions using the latter. In 1997, Nielsen-Massey became one of the first food ingredient manufacturers to receive organic certification. It was the first to receive gluten-free certification, too. All Nielsen-Massey’s Vanilla products are Kosher certified.
At this summer’s Fancy Food Show, celebrity chef Cat Cora presented Nielsen-Massey with the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade’s Gold sofi Award for its Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste.
Nielsen-Massey Vanillas are available at retail chains such as Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table and Whole Foods as well as local purveyors such as Fresh Market, the Spice House and Sunset Foods.