How to CookVanilla

All About Vanilla

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Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, we're taking a closer look at vanilla. 


Vanilla is a workhorse in the kitchen. Every home cook who likes to turn out baked goods has vanilla in various forms in their pantry. It's so ubiquitous that we probably don't give this ingredient much thought, but that's not fair considering all it does for us. Think about it, a drop of extract, or a scrape of a bean, can take you pretty far. And don't those little flecks of vanilla make a dish look more exciting? Yes. 

So today, we're giving vanilla some well-deserved time in the spotlight. 


Vanilla Bean Basics

First things first: why are they so expensive? Producing vanilla is labor-intensive and time-sensitive. The trickiest part is pollinating, which is typically done by hand -- these climbing orchids need to be pollinated the day their flowers bloom and to make matters more difficult, the flower only lasts one day, so if you miss the flower, you're out of luck (and vanilla). After pollination, it takes about 9 months for a mature vanilla bean to form. The beans are picked green and cured for several more months before they end up on store shelves. 


Vanilla Varieties

The flavors in vanilla beans vary, depending on where the plants were grown. There are four main varieties we'll find on store shelves; here's a brief primer:

Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar (and surrounding islands) is known to have the most pronounced vanilla flavor, thanks to high amounts of vanillin (the natural compound responsible for that familiar flavor). Bourbon vanilla is also grown in New Zealand by our friends at Heilala. 

Indonesian vanilla sometimes has a smoky quality, and tends to be lighter in color.

Mexican vanilla beans have half the amount of vanillin of Bourbon beans, and according to Harold McGee they "have distinctive fruity  and winy aromas."

Tahitian vanilla is a distant relative of the other varieties -- the plant is actually a different species -- and is popular for its soft floral notes.

How to store vanilla beans: Luckily, vanilla beans aren't very fussy once they've made their way into our kitchens. Just store in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. We've heard that refrigerating vanilla beans is a good idea, but an expert opinion says otherwise. In her very thorough cultural history of vanilla, Patricia Rain says that refigeration can cause the beans to harden and crystallize, and nobody wants that. 


Do not discard: Vanilla pods have more flavor than the seeds we scrape out of them, so don't throw them away. A great place for scraped vanilla pods to end up is in a container of sugar, but that's not your only option -- you can use them to infuse their flavor into custard bases, simple syrups, and any kind of liquid you like. As long as they're still fragrant, they'll impart their flavor, so rinse and dry them after each use and see how much you can get out of them. Once their scent is faint, let them rest in sugar.

Do you have any favorite ways to stretch the life of your scraped pods?


Vanilla's Other Forms 

Extract: Know what it takes to make vanilla extract? Alcohol, vanilla beans, and time. The alcohol extracts the flavor compounds from the vanilla bean, then the extract ages to develop more complex flavors. The method is flexible -- the extraction time can last days or months, and the aging time can also vary. We love a flexible method, but not too flexible -- some vanilla extracts include sugar, corn syrup, and coloring. Keep an eye out for extra ingredients that might not be so necessary. 

Flavoring: Natural vanilla flavoring is an alcohol-free, glycerin-based product. It is more commonly used in commercial settings, but if you look hard enough you'll be able to find some to use at home. Cooks Illustrated notes that the consistency is "viscous and a little slick" and that its flavor is sweet. The vanilla flavor it imparts is more mild than what you would get from using traditional vanilla extract, so it might not be worth the effort of tracking it down. If you're looking for an alcohol-free vanila flavoring, try vanilla powder. 

Heilala vanilla paste, a new favorite in our test kitchen. 

Paste: Vanilla paste is a mixture of vanilla extract and vanilla seeds with some sugar added. It's a very convenient product if you use a lot of vanilla, or don't like scraping vanilla beans. One thing to be aware of is how much sugar is added to the product -- some vanilla pastes are 40% sugar and more like jam, which might mean you'll want to adjust some components of a recipe (or you could just spread a little on slices of buttered toast). Heilala vanilla paste is only 5% sugar and is a safe bet for baking -- a teaspoon is equivalent to one vanilla bean. We've used it in the test kitchen with great results. 

Powder: Vanilla powder is dried extract with a cornstarch base. It can be used just like vanilla extract, in equal amounts, and won't discolor frostings or other color-sensitive recipes. Just mix it in with your dry ingredients. 

Synthetic Vanillin: You may encounter products that contain synthetic vanillin, which isn't vanilla at all -- this stuff comes from industrial by-products like wood pulp. Synthetic vanilla flavoring is certainly less expensive, but the flavor is flat compared to the real deal. Some might say "you get what you pay for."

What's your favorite way to use vanilla? Enter the recipe into our contest!

And if you need to restock your supply, check out our shop offer for Heilala vanilla extract and paste.  

Tags: Tips & Techniques, DIY Food, How-To & Diy, Kitchen Confidence