Everything You Need to Know About Vanilla

There’s so much to learn about this baking standby.

Vanilla. Photo:

Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images

Vanilla is one of those ingredients that shows up in nearly every baking recipe. Whether it’s the central flavoring agent in a vanilla custard, or a supporting ingredient in a cake or cookie, vanilla is everywhere. But it is also one of the more expensive baking ingredients around, and there can be wild variations in pricing. Here’s how to figure out which vanilla to use in your baking. 

What Is Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla extract is made by infusing an alcohol base with whole vanilla beans until the vanilla flavor has leached into the liquid. If that sounds simple, then you are correct. In fact, you can easily make your own extract by steeping whole vanilla beans in an 80-proof liquor; vodka is common, but you can use bourbon or rum for extra flavor, or even smoky mezcal. The standard recipe for vanilla extract calls for one vanilla bean for every two ounces of liquor. Simply pour them into a clean jar and let them infuse. The vanilla extract will be usable in as little as eight weeks, but letting it sit six to twelve months will give you the best intensity of flavor.  

If you really love vanilla and want to feature its flavor in your cooking, go the extra step of finding specific varietals of vanilla beans or single origin vanilla extracts. Indonesian vanilla extract is woodsy, making it a great choice for chocolate desserts. Mexican vanilla has warming spice notes, making it perfect with desserts that have cinnamon or clove or nutmeg in them. Tahitian vanilla is more floral, and processed with a cold extraction method which makes it the ideal vanilla for chilled or frozen desserts. Extracts from Uganda and Madagascar have a straightforward vanilla flavor.

What Is Imitation Vanilla?

You’ve seen bottles in the grocery store labeled Imitation Vanilla or Vanilla Flavoring, that are significantly less pricey than true vanilla extract. You might assume that there is no place in your pantry for this faux extract made with chemical flavoring agents. But surprisingly, imitation vanilla can be a useful and affordable tool in your baking arsenal. When you are making vanilla-forward desserts like ice cream, pastry cream or Chantilly cream, true extract is always preferred. But in baked goods where vanilla is one of many supporting flavors, there is very little difference between the results with imitation or real extract, and the price point makes it worth keeping the good stuff for the special bakes.

The Difference Between Vanilla Paste and Extract

Vanilla paste is made of vanilla seeds suspended in a gel, and is an easy way to enhance your baking. It is ideal for when you want vanilla punch with visible seeds, but don’t have whole beans on hand. Whole beans can be hard to store, and dry out easily. This paste gives you all the benefits of whole beans, plus is easy to measure and shelf-stable. Use it in ice cream, custards, or anywhere those little flecks will add to the visual effect. It is also helpful when you don’t want a liquid that might dilute the texture of what you are working on, such as Chantilly whipped cream.

What to Use When You Are Out of Vanilla

Have a baking project and go to the cupboard to discover your bottle of vanilla is empty? Never fear! There are two easy substitutions for vanilla extract, and they are both likely in your bar. Bourbon or dark rum — both of which have slightly sweet caramel notes — are easy substitutions for vanilla in recipes. Much like vanilla extract, they will not taste booze-forward, but rather will serve as an enhancing backnote (note that it is a better choice for baked goods where the alcohol will burn off). You can swap in equal parts bourbon or rum for vanilla extract. 

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles