A bottle of Tahitian vanilla extract, raw vanilla beans and a small bottle of vanilla extract on a blue background

An Introductory Guide to Vanilla

A supporting cast member that isn’t always meant to be in the spotlight

When we think of vanilla, pastry applications that have vanilla as the primary flavor, like ice cream, may come to mind first. However, vanilla is more often used because it’s a flavor enhancer. It complements and mellows, balancing sharper notes and contributing a sweet and floral flavor, which is why it appears as an ingredient in most baked goods.

Think of vanilla like any other spice in your cabinet — it can be added to cocktails, barbecue rubs, chili and more. Plus, the many forms of vanilla available at the grocery store offer many different and fun ways to experiment with it. 

Here’s everything you need to know about this ingredient from the Pastry & Baking Arts Chef-Instructors at ICE.

What is vanilla? Where is it grown?

Vanilla beans are the string-bean-shaped fruit of the vanilla orchid, which is grown in tropical regions with lots of sunlight, high humidity and high temperatures. It takes about a year for the fruit to grow, and after the bean is picked, it is cured then dried and fermented, changing in color from green to dark brown.

According to ICE Chef-Instructor Trung Vu, Madagascan vanilla beans are the most widely available, and they bring the classic vanilla flavor we’re familiar with (sweet notes), whereas Tahitian beans offer more floral notes.

All forms of vanilla are expensive because the areas where the orchid grows are prone to monsoons and tropical storms which decrease supply, plus it’s a very labor-intensive crop.

What are the different types of vanilla?

Whole vanilla beans

Look for beans that are oily, plump and moist, and not dried out or brittle. To use, slice the pod in half lengthwise and use the back of a paring knife to scrape down the length of the bean to extract the seeds. Add the seeds to any recipe, but don’t discard the pod — steep it in liquid to add flavor (it's great to use in an ice cream base) or use it to create other vanilla products at home, which you’ll find out more about below. If you get a firmer bean, soak it in warm or room-temperature liquid to help it loosen up.

Vanilla extract 

Ever had a taste of vanilla extract and been surprised by its harsh flavor? That’s because this ingredient is made by macerating vanilla beans in a mixture of alcohol and water until the flavor and color of the bean have been extracted. This type of vanilla is widely available and more affordable than whole beans. When purchasing, make sure to read the product label, as there are two types of extract: pure vanilla extract and imitation extract. 

Though imitation may be cheaper, ICE Chef-Instructor Stephen Chavez always recommends using pure vanilla. 

“The pure flavor is much more floral and deep than any inexpensive extract,” he says.

Vanilla paste

Made from ground vanilla beans, vanilla paste may also contain sugar or thickeners. Both extract and paste will add color, but unlike the extract, the paste has speckles from the seeds. Director of Pastry Research & Development Jürgen David prefers to use this type of vanilla for its convenience and deep flavor and suggests using one tablespoon of paste per bean when substituting.

Vanilla powder

Pure vanilla powder is made from dried, ground vanilla. Many powders available are actually vanilla sugar and their white color is a giveaway, as pure powder has a darker shade. This form of vanilla can be useful when you want a dry application of the flavor, like sprinkling it with sugar onto a doughnut. When substituting, keep in mind that vanilla powder is more intense than vanilla extract, so start with about half the volume of powder.

Which type of vanilla should I use when?

ICE Chef-Instructor Sandra Palmer advises students to use vanilla beans, powder and paste only when a customer will be able to see it, like in vanilla bean marshmallows or vanilla ice cream. Seeing the flecks of vanilla seeds enables them to anticipate the flavor and understand the effort and expense involved in making it. On the other hand, if you’re making a chocolate cake, she recommends using vanilla extract in order to maximize value.

How to get the most out of vanilla

Don’t toss vanilla beans after scraping the seeds out, as there is still a lot of flavor left. Try these two methods at home for spreading this expensive ingredient as far as possible:

Make homemade vanilla extract using leftover vanilla beans.

In an airtight jar, add three to four used beans, water and alcohol using a ratio of 2/3 alcohol to 1/3 water. A neutral spirit is ideal, but you can use rum, vodka, bourbon or any type you’d like. Let the beans steep for a few weeks before using. Alternatively, if you don’t have enough beans to start from scratch, Chef Stephen suggests adding what you have to a bottle of vanilla extract to amplify its flavor. Continue adding used beans and alcohol and you’ll end up with a much better flavored product.

Don’t need more vanilla extract? Try vanilla sugar instead.

ICE Chef-Instructor Kierin Baldwin suggests using running water to clean a leftover pod, then letting it dry out for a few days. Once it is no longer pliable, she uses a food processor to grind the pod with granulated sugar, then sifts it through a fine sieve to remove any large leftover chunks of the bean — you can process these chunks with more sugar to ensure the use of the whole pod. The sugar will absorb the scent and flavor of the vanilla; substitute it for granulated sugar in any recipe for great vanilla flavor.

Add new comment