I used to take vanilla for granted.
Then, I was making chocolate chip cookies one day and ran out of vanilla extract. So I left it out. It was like leaving salt out of the recipe. The cookies lacked the round, full flavors they usually had. I realized vanilla was the foundation of all my favorite baked goods.
Vanilla is an essential ingredient like salt, and its usual supporting role is to enhance and bring out the featured flavor. Whether it’s part of the supporting cast or the star, however, it is important to use the best quality vanilla you can find.
As baking season ramps up, here’s a primer on vanilla extracts, pastes and powders, including single-origin vanillas, which have specific uses depending on where they come from.
First, buy pure vanilla, not imitation or vanilla-flavored.
“Only pure vanilla complements and adds all the depths of flavor” to baked goods, says Matt Nielsen of Nielsen-Massey Fine Vanillas & Flavors.
Although the word “vanilla” can carry a “plain Jane” vibe, vanilla is anything but plain. Cultivating and growing vanilla beans is complex, and vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron. But you use so little of it per recipe that the cost of even the highest-quality vanilla in a batch of cookies, say, is nominal, and a small price to pay for maximizing flavor.
Vanilla planifolia originated in Mexico and was brought to Madagascar, Indonesia, Uganda and Tahiti, among other places. Today, Madagascar produces the most vanilla beans, and is likely the origin of the vanilla product in your pantry. Making extracts, paste and powder out of the fruit of an orchid is a time- and labor-intensive proposition.
Until recently, I didn’t realize how many vanilla options there were. Nielsen Massey, for instance, makes five single-origin extracts, and I wondered if I could taste a difference among them.
Vanilla tastings are generally done by making vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. To save time, however, I decided to taste the vanilla varieties dropped on a white sugar cube instead. And I really could taste the differences.
With the help of Nielsen, I have created a primer here on vanilla and the five single-origins that I tasted. The good news about the paste and powder is you can substitute them 1 for 1. Meaning, if your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, you can opt for 1 teaspoon of either paste or powder instead.
For everyday cooking and baking, choose your favorite single-origin vanilla, or opt for the pure vanilla extract.
PURE VANILLA EXTRACT
The pantry staple, it’s made from a blend of different origins. Different brands have different blends. Vanilla extract generally has a small amount of sugar in it, in addition to alcohol. The sugar keeps the vanilla suspended in the liquid. You can buy No Sugar Added Vanilla Extract, but it must be shaken before use.
These, Nielsen says, “shine in their distinct ways, such as high-heat application for Indonesian, chocolate dishes for Ugandan, etc.” Varieties include:
Madagascar Bourbon: Deep, smooth, creamy flavor. This is what most people associate with the flavor of vanilla. Best choice for a multi-purpose vanilla.
Mexican: The OG vanilla, spicy, works well with warm autumn spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice. This is the vanilla to pair with fall flavors. Has an affinity to chocolate as well.
Ugandan: Similar to Madagascar vanilla in that it is creamy and sweet, but it has a chocolate note and is good in caramel and citrus dishes.
Indonesian: Indonesia is the second largest grower in the world, and the vanilla has a unique flavor profile that is woody and earthy, with natural smoky notes. It retains its flavor in high heat and is a good choice for a grilling marinade, as well as cookies like biscotti which are baked twice.
Tahitian: Comes from a slightly different vanilla orchid called the Vanilla tahitensis, and only grows in tropical Tahiti. It is uniquely fruity and floral, and the beans are shorter. This vanilla is delicate and cannot withstand heat well. It has a cherry fruit note and is best in fruit-based desserts, or added to ice cream, cream anglaise and non-cook desserts.
VANILLA BEAN PASTE
Available as a blend and as a single-origin from Madagascar, vanilla bean paste delivers the same flavor and adds the look of the vanilla bean, which is especially appealing in ice cream, cream brulee and other desserts. Beth Nielsen, vice president of culinary for the company, also brushes it on mild fish before grilling. The sugar in the paste caramelizes during cooking and creates a simple glaze.
The Nielsen-Massey powder is made by encapsulating vanilla extract in a cornstarch base, which dissolves when blended with any wet product. It is sugar- and alcohol-free. It is best used in any dry applications or when you want the taste of vanilla but not the tint of vanilla extract, as in a white cake or white buttercream. I also use it in spice rubs (recipe below) made of dried ingredients, for grilled fruit recipes, for instance. There are other vanilla powders in the marketplace that are ground beans and dark brown in color.
A couple recipes that make the most of vanilla:
FRESH VANILLA WHIPPED CREAM
It’s so easy to make whipped cream, there is no excuse to buy it. You’ll need:
1 pint heavy cream
1 tablespoon confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, paste or powder
Pinch of fine-grain sea salt
Directions: Add the sugar, vanilla and salt to the cream as it is being whipped. Beat until stiff, and serve immediately. Refrigerate any unused cream.
Note: To spike the whipped cream, add 2 tablespoons bourbon or rum as it is being whipped.
ELIZABETH’S DESSERT RUB
Use this spice mixture on fruit desserts that you are grilling or baking, including bananas, peaches, plums, apples, pears, apricots or grilled poundcake.
3 tablespoons granulated white sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey vanilla powder
Pinch fine-grain sea salt
In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. The rub will keep in an airtight container for up to 6 months.