Vanilla as a concept has a bad rap: the word alone implies something safe at best and boring at worst. Basically, basically. But vanilla as an ingredient is something wonderful, ambrosial, flowery, warm and refined. In truth, the essence of vanilla is anything but simple.
“It’s an essential ingredient that gives a dish not only taste, but also body and soul,” says Francis Ang, a pastry chef from San Francisco and owner of the pop-up pop-up Pinoy Heritage. Vanilla is, of course, an integral part of countless pastries and desserts, adding a sense of familiarity to everything from ice cream to sugar cookies. And it is a luxury good in itself, the result of an extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive harvest that has to be done almost exclusively by hand.
But for an ingredient this commonly used, vanilla and its subgroups can be confusing. When it comes to vanilla pods, extracts, pastes, sugars and salts, how do you know which version to buy? Why are some vanilla so much more expensive than others? And how do you make sure you don’t waste any of that precious stuff when you do to do invest in a more expensive option?
With these questions in mind, we spoke to a panel of experts (including pastry chefs and the author of a vanilla-centered cookbook) to demystify the vast, wonderful world of vanilla.
Where does vanilla come from?
In one really nice trick of nature, vanilla pods (the long, thin, stick-shaped thing that is sometimes sold individually in a tube) are the fruit of a stunning flower known as the vanilla orchid, which is the only orchid that is edible fruit.
The most common vanilla orchid used for culinary purposes is Vanilla Planifolia, is native to Mexico and is grown in the Caribbean, northern South America, Central America and Madagascar. There are also Vanilla pompona, found in the West Indies, Central America, and South America; and Vanilla Tahitensis, local in French Polynesia and New Guinea, whose backstory is something of a botanical secret.
Do different vanilla have different flavors?
Madagascar makes about 80 percent of global supply, so this is probably the “traditional” taste that you have become most used to, says Shauna Sever, author of the Cookbook Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques. The Mexican vanilla is a bit stronger and slightly smoky, while the Tahitian vanilla is more delicate and flowery. Some suppliers, such as Burl & Barrel, sell pods from other locations, such as Tanzania and the Peruvian Amazon.
Why are vanilla pods so expensive?
In short, because the vanilla harvest is a time and labor intensive endeavor that cannot be automated. “It’s an incredibly long process that can’t be rushed,” says Sever.
To begin with, the vanilla orchids only open one day a year and need to be hand-pollinated as this particular flower has only one natural pollinator – the Melipona bee, native to Central America. It takes another eight to nine months for the pods to ripen and then they need to be hand-picked when green. They still don’t resemble the fragrant, glossy brownish-black stems you see in stores. First the pods need to be ripened, then wrapped in small blankets and dried, a three to six month process in which they ferment and shrink by 400 percent.
Additionally, global vanilla prices have risen sharply in recent years, partly due to increased demand, lower supply, and a number of natural disasters in growth regions like Madagascar. As the price of vanilla has increased, vanilla has become the target of thieves in Madagascar attacked and killed Farmers for their valuable vanilla harvest. Then there is the COVID-19 pandemic; While it remains to be seen how this will affect the price of vanilla, it likely won’t help.
Okay so let’s say me to do Peel for a vanilla pod. How do I know if I’m getting a good one?
Brands like Nielsen-Massey, Heilala, Savory, the vanilla queen, and Burl & Barrel are generally reliable. “You can tell whether a vanilla pod is really good by how thick and plump it is – it should look almost a little damp,” says Miller Union pastry chef and eater young gun Claudia Martinez. “I don’t recommend buying pods from large grocery stores as they are usually dry, thin, and fragile – these aren’t worth your money. If everything has shrunk, it shows that there aren’t many beans in it. ”
To store vanilla pods, warm them tightly in plastic warm and store them in an airtight container (such as a jar) in a cool, dark place for up to six months.
The recipe I use says scraping the vanilla seeds out of the pod. How do you do it best?
There isn’t one right way to go – the most common is to simply cut the pod in half lengthwise with a sharp knife and use the tip of that knife to scrape out the tiny beans – but Martinez has a trick she prefers. “I like to cut the pod in half with clean scissors and then use a small spoon or offset spatula to scrape out the beans,” she says. “I think it’s cleaner and you have less risk of breaking the pod with a sharp knife.” She also recommends rubbing the pods vigorously between your hands for a few seconds before cutting to warm them up and loosen the seeds, which relaxes the pod and makes it easier to sprout.
What can I do with leftover bean pods after scraping out the seeds?
A lot! “I like to fill a mason jar with vodka or brandy and then let the beans steep in it for a few weeks (or even months) to make my own extract,” says Ang. “Sometimes I even drink the whole pod (not just the leftover pods ) so that the kernels soften and swell inside, and you can remove them by simply running your finger over the pod and squeezing the beans. ”You can also put the used pods in a sugar-filled glass to add sugar vanilla flavored, and do the same with a flaky finishing salt like Maldon.
What is the difference between a vanilla pod and vanilla extract? Are they interchangeable in a recipe?
Vanilla extract is by far the most common form of vanilla available today. As the name suggests, it’s made by macerating chopped vanilla pods in alcohol, which extracts the flavors and scents from the bean. Look for pure vanilla extract (more on imitation extract below), which must have 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon and 35 percent alcohol during extraction. Beans and extract are interchangeable in most recipes – a whole vanilla pod is equivalent to one tablespoon of extract (see this helpful table for further conversions).
In terms of brands, most of the same companies that sell high quality vanilla pods sell high quality vanilla extract. “As long as the word ‘pure’ is on it and the label only says vanilla pods and alcohol, you’re in business,” says Sever. Aside from the bean brands listed above, she’s a fan of Costco’s everyday Kirkland vanilla and calls it good quality for the price. Vanilla extract lasts more or less indefinitely at room temperature.
How about some faux vanilla extract?
Although many of us grew up on a small bottle of McCormick’s faux vanilla, ask any sources interviewed for this piece not to use it. The reason? It doesn’t contain real vanilla. Imitation extract is primarily made up of an artificial flavor called vanillin, which is essentially wood pulp with the vanilla flavor extracted from it. It has a weaker taste and aroma than the real stuff and can leave a bitter aftertaste. When that’s all you have, they suggest limiting use to baked goods that aren’t particularly vanilla in taste or in the pear, like brownies or a loaf cake with lots of other warm condiments.
How about some vanilla bean paste? What is it?
Vanilla bean paste is a special product that has become more and more available in recent years. It’s a thick, brown, syrupy goo made by mixing concentrated vanilla extract and vanilla powder. Unlike liquid extract, it is full of visible vanilla seeds (spots) and has a more intense ambrosial aroma and aroma than extract alone. “It’s like getting the best of both worlds – huge flavor out of the pod, but the convenience of an extract,” says Sever. And because it’s so strong, a little bit is enough (one vanilla pod = 2 to 3 teaspoons of vanilla paste, according to the conversion table). Nielsen-Massey and the Spice House are two reliable brands; both keep for months at room temperature.
When does it make sense to use vanilla pods versus paste versus extract?
- Beans: If vanilla is the star of a dish or you want to see lots of small spots in the finished product, it pays to use a whole bean (even if you only use part of it). Vanilla ice cream, blondies, white cakes or cupcakes and sugar cookies are all places where beans can make a difference, as can desserts with lots of fresh or poached fruit.
- Paste: Almost as good as and almost interchangeable with beans (and still lots of stains) and can be easier to work with if you add liquids like cream (used for whipping or baking). Plus, it’s generally cheaper than whole bean pods.
- Excerpt: Save this for desserts where vanilla plays second fiddle to both taste and appearance: think brownies, chocolate chip cookies, spice cakes, coffee cakes, and the like.
What do you do with vanilla
Vanilla can be found in countless desserts and baked goods. In addition to the ones listed above, Ang loves pairing it with coconut milk for a more tropical flavor profile, Martinez adds it to her donut batter, and Sever is known to add it to butter sauces and seasoning mixes for flavoring pork.
One final note: “If you use vanilla, you should also use salt in a dessert to bring the vanilla flavor out of the background and make it glow,” says Ang. “You need a balance to awaken all of your senses. ”
Jamie Feldmar is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and cookbook author.
Sophia Ppas is an illustrator from Pittsburgh.