Vanilla, as a concept, suffers a bad rep: The word alone implies something safe at best, and boring at worst. Basic, basically. But vanilla as an ingredient is a wondrous thing, ambrosial, floral, warm, and sophisticated. In truth, the essence of vanilla is anything but plain.
“It’s an essential ingredient, adding not just flavor, but also body and soul into a dish,” says Francis Ang, a San Francisco-based pastry chef and owner of the pop-up Pinoy Heritage. Vanilla is, of course, integral to countless pastries and desserts, adding a sense of familiarity to everything from ice cream to sugar cookies. And it’s a luxury good in its own right, the result of a wildly time- and labor-intensive harvest that must be done almost entirely by hand.
But for such a frequently used ingredient, vanilla and its subsets can be confusing to understand. With vanilla bean pods, extracts, pastes, sugars, and salts out there, how do you know which version to shop for? Why are some vanillas so much more expensive than others? And how do you make sure you’re not wasting any of the precious stuff if you do invest in a pricier option?
With those questions in mind, we spoke to a panel of experts (including pastry chefs and the author of a vanilla-centric cookbook) to help demystify the wide, wonderful world of vanilla.
Where does vanilla come from?
In a truly neat trick of nature, vanilla pods (the long, thin, stick-like thing you sometimes see sold individually in a tube) are the fruit of a stunning flower known as the vanilla orchid, which is the only orchid to bear edible fruit.
The most commonly used vanilla orchid for culinary purposes is vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico, and grown across the Caribbean, northern South America, Central America, and Madagascar. There’s also vanilla pompona, found in the West Indies, Central America, and South America; and vanilla tahitensis, local to French Polynesia and New Guinea, whose backstory is something of a botanical mystery.
Do different vanillas have different flavors?
Madagascar accounts for roughly 80 percent of the world’s supply today, so that’s probably the “traditional” flavor you’re most used to, says Shauna Sever, author of the cookbook Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques. Mexican vanilla is a little bolder and slightly smoky, while Tahitian vanilla is more delicate and floral. Some purveyors, like Burlap & Barrel, sell pods from other places, such as Tanzania and the Peruvian Amazon.
Why are vanilla beans so expensive?
In short, because vanilla harvesting is a time- and labor-intensive endeavor that defies automation. “It’s an incredibly long process that can’t be rushed,” Sever says.
To start with, the vanilla orchids only open one day a year, and they must be hand-pollinated because this particular flower has only one natural pollinator — the Melipona bee, which is native to Central America. It takes the pods another eight to nine months to mature, and then they must be hand-picked while green. They still don’t resemble the fragrant, shiny brown-black stems you see in stores. First, the pods must be cured, then wrapped in little blankets and dried, a three-to-six-month process during which they ferment and shrink down by 400 percent.
On top of all that, global vanilla prices have soared in recent years, due in part to increased demand, decreased supply, and a series of natural disasters in growing regions like Madagascar. As the price of vanilla has increased, it has made vanilla in Madagascar the target of thieves, who have attacked and killed farmers for their valuable vanilla crops. On top of that, there’s the COVID-19 pandemic; while it remains to be seen how it will affect the price of vanilla, it probably won’t help matters.
Okay, so let’s say I do shell out for a vanilla bean pod. How do I know if I’m getting a good one?
Brands such as Nielsen-Massey, Heilala, Beanilla, The Vanilla Queen, and Burlap & Barrel are generally reliable. “You can tell if a vanilla bean is really good based on how thick and plump it is — it should almost look a little moist,” says Miller Union pastry chef and Eater Young Gun Claudia Martinez. “I don’t recommend buying pods from big-box grocery stores, because they’re usually dry, thin, and frail — those aren’t worth your money. If it’s all shriveled up, it shows there aren’t a lot of beans inside.”
To store vanilla beans, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container (such as a jar) in a cool, dark place for up to six months.
The recipe I’m using says to scrape the vanilla seeds out of the pod. What’s the best way to do that?
There is no one right way — the most common is just to split the pod in half lengthwise with a sharp knife and use the tip of said knife to scrape the tiny beans out — but Martinez has a trick she prefers. “I like to cut the pod in half with clean scissors, then use a little spoon or an offset spatula to scrape 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 briskly between your hands for a few seconds to warm them up and loosen the seeds before cutting, which helps relax the pod and makes it easier to scrape out.
What can I do with leftover bean pods after I’ve scraped the seeds?
Plenty! “I like to fill a mason jar with vodka or brandy, then steep the beans in them for a few weeks (or even months), to make my own extract,” says Ang. “Sometimes I even soak the whole pod (not just the leftover shells), so that the seeds inside soften and swell up, and you can remove them just by running your finger along the pod and squeezing the beans out.” You can also add the spent pods to a jar filled with sugar to get vanilla-flavored sugar, and do the same with a flaky finishing salt such as Maldon.
What’s the difference between a vanilla bean pod and vanilla extract? Are they interchangeable in a recipe?
Vanilla extract is by far the most common form of vanilla available today. As its name implies, it’s made by macerating chopped vanilla bean pods in alcohol, which extracts the flavors and fragrances from the bean. Look for pure vanilla extract (more on imitation extract below), which must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and 35 percent alcohol. Beans and extract are interchangeable in most recipes — one whole vanilla bean is equivalent to one tablespoon of extract (see this helpful chart for more conversions).
In terms of brands, most of the same companies that peddle high-quality vanilla bean pods sell high-quality vanilla extract. “As long as it has the word ‘pure’ on it and the label just says vanilla beans and alcohol, you’re in business,” says Sever. In addition to the bean brands listed above, she’s a fan of Costco’s Kirkland vanilla for everyday use, calling it good quality for the price. Vanilla extract keeps at room temperature more or less indefinitely.
How about imitation vanilla extract?
Although many of us grew up with a little bottle of McCormick’s imitation vanilla extract, all of the sources interviewed for this piece beg you not to use it. The reason? It doesn’t have any real vanilla in it. Imitation extract is made primarily of an artificial flavoring called vanillin, which is essentially wood pulp with the flavor of vanilla extracted from it. It has a weaker flavor and aroma than the real stuff, and can leave a bitter aftertaste. If it’s all you have, they suggest limiting its use to baked goods that aren’t particularly vanilla-forward in flavor or appearance, like brownies or a loaf cake with lots of other warm spices.
What about vanilla bean paste? What’s that?
A somewhat specialty item that’s become more available in recent years, vanilla bean paste is a thick, brown, syrupy goo made by blending concentrated vanilla extract and vanilla powder together. Unlike liquid extract, it’s chock-full of visible vanilla seeds (flecks), and has a more intensely ambrosial aroma and flavor than extract alone. “It’s like getting the best of both worlds — huge flavor from the pod, but the convenience of an extract,” says Sever. And because it’s so potent, a little bit goes a long way (one vanilla bean = 2 to 3 teaspoons vanilla paste, per the conversion chart). Nielsen-Massey and the Spice House are two reliable brands; both keep at room temperature for months.
When does it make sense to use vanilla bean pods versus paste versus extract?
- Beans: When vanilla is the star of a dish, or you want to see lots of little flecks in the finished product, it’s worth it to splurge on 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 are desserts heavy on fresh or poached fruit.
- Paste: Nearly as good as and almost interchangeable with beans (and still delivering plenty of flecks), and can be easier to work with when adding to liquids like cream (for whipping or pastry purposes). Plus, it’s generally more affordable than whole bean pods.
- Extract: Save this for desserts where vanilla plays second fiddle in terms of flavor and appearance: Think brownies, chocolate chip cookies, spice cakes, coffee cakes, and the like.
What to make with vanilla
Vanilla shows up 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 doughnut dough, and Sever has been known to add it to butter sauces and into spice rubs for seasoning pork.
A final note: “If you’re using vanilla, you should also be using salt, even in a dessert, to help bring the vanilla flavor out from the background and let it shine,” says Ang. “You need to have balance to awaken all your senses.”
Jamie Feldmar is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and cookbook author.
Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.