You think that all vanilla is the same, right? Well, I’m here to dispel that myth right now. All vanilla is NOT created equal.
The question is, when do you use vanilla extract, vanilla paste, or vanilla beans? And what’s the difference? (My inner teacher is about to come out. Ready?)
Vanilla extract is a liquid vanilla flavoring that is usually made by macerating and percolating vanilla beans with a solution of ethyl alcohol and water. It is available in “pure” or “artificial” varieties.
Pure vanilla extract uses alcohol to extract the vanilla compounds from the beans and make the liquid flavoring. In order for the extract to be considered “pure” by the US Food and Drug Administration, it must contain a minimum of 35% alcohol and 100 g of vanilla beans per litre. The alcohol is baked off during the baking process leaving a mild vanilla flavor.
Artificial vanilla extract is not made from vanilla beans at all. It is actually a byproduct of the pulp and paper industry and is derived from coal tar. (It’s evil, I tell ya.)
If given the choice between the two, always choose pure vanilla extract. The difference in cost is minimal, but the difference in flavor and health benefits is huge.
Because vanilla extract is the most affordable, is usually used in baking where the vanilla flavor is not the dominant flavor but is overshadowed by other flavors like cinnamon, chocolate or other spices. ie: brownies, cookies, or muffins.
Vanilla Bean Paste
Vanilla bean paste is made by infusing the vanilla bean caviar into a sweet sugar syrup which is usually thickened with a natural thickener. Vanilla bean paste is more expensive than vanilla extract but is cheaper than vanilla bean pods.
Because vanilla bean paste is made with the vanilla bean caviar, it will contain the indicative black/brown flecks and will add a more pronounced vanilla flavor in baked goods. It is best used when you want an unmistakable and noticeable vanilla flavor. ie: vanilla cake, shortbread cookies, jams & jellies.
I’ll be honest, I use vanilla bean paste almost exclusively. I rarely use vanilla extract and I reserve my vanilla beans for more special occasions and specialty desserts.
Vanilla Bean Pods
Vanilla bean pods are derived from orchids, of the genus Vanilla, which grows as a vine. Vanilla plants are only grown in Mexico and Central and South America, despite many attempts to cultivate the plant in other parts of the world. Vanilla is the world’s second most expensive spice following saffron, because growing and cultivating the beans is very labor-intensive and will include pollinating the plants by hand.
Vanilla bean pods, which are actually the dried fruit of the vanilla plant, can be used whole to infuse flavor into sugars, syrups, or jams and jellies.
Once split in half, the vanilla bean caviar which is the tiny black/brown flecks, can be scraped out and used for the most intense vanilla flavor. A little bit will go a long way in terms of flavor intensity, aroma, and dimension.
Vanilla bean caviar is best used in
everything whatever your budget will allow, because the beans can be quite expensive.
You should now feel informed enough to go through your cupboard and toss away that bottle of artificial vanilla extract that you bought and replace it with 1 bottle of pure vanilla extract, 1 bottle of vanilla bean paste, and a couple of vanilla bean pods.
Look for vanilla bean pods and vanilla bean paste at your local gourmet food store, grocery store, or buy them here on Amazon. (affiliated links)