Vanilla is the ‘salt’ of the pastry world.
It’s the background flavor to just about everything I make, and I add a few drops of pure vanilla extract to whatever I’m baking.
Vanilla is reputedly the world’s most popular flavor but many of us who use it know little about it, except that it smells and tastes great, and sometimes seems outrageously expensive for such a tiny bottle.
Here’s the answers to some of the questions that you might have about vanilla…
What’s the difference between the three ‘origins’ of vanilla available?
Bourbon: This doesn’t mean the vanilla contains whiskey, it refers to the I’le de Bourbon, now known as Réunion. Most Bourbon vanilla is now grown on the island of Madagascar, the largest vanilla-producing region on the world. Bourbon vanilla is the strongest and most full-flavored of all the vanillas and give you the most ‘bang-for-your-buck’. I use Bourbon vanilla for baking, since it’s assertive flavor doesn’t lose potency when cooked.
Tahiti: Tahitian vanilla gained popularity a decade ago; its shockingly-high cost perhaps fanned its fame. Tahitian vanilla has a more delicate flavor; very floral and tropical. I use it in fruit salads or scenting tropical fruit desserts since baking with it seems a waste of it’s subtle flavor. Tahitian vanilla used to be far more expensive than Bourbon, but recent socio-political and economic events equalized the prices somewhat. Tahitian vanilla beans are plumper than others, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they have more flavor or are a better value. They’re just naturally moister.
Mexico: If you think that quart bottle you bought in Mexico for $1 was a great bargain, think again (then dump it down the drain.) Real Mexican vanilla is perhaps the best in the world, and the price of pure Mexican vanilla is similar to other pure vanilla extracts. Labeling laws in Mexico differ than those in other countries, so that jumbo bottle of ‘Real Mexican Vanilla’ you bought at the tourist shop is likely a synthetic and contains coumarin, a substance banned in the United States by the FDA since it’s considered toxic, like tonka beans. I love pure Mexican extract, it’s sweet-spicy scent reminds me of just-churned vanilla ice cream and is versatile for every baking and cooking application.
Other vanilla growing regions include Bali, Sumatra, Java, China, and Indonesia. Often in some of these countries, vanilla beans are dried over fires to speed up the process, giving the vanilla beans a smoky aroma. I sniff the vanilla before buying (if I can) when it’s been produced in any of these countries but in general, I avoid vanilla from these regions. The prices are generally lower but the quality is often inferior.
Why is vanilla so expensive?
You may have noticed wild fluctuations in vanilla prices over the last several years. Political unrest and commercial reliance on pure vanilla (such as Vanilla Coke) increased demand and raised the prices worldwide. Vanilla cultivation is also the most labor-intensive of all food crops. Each orchid stalk can take a two to three years to produce it’s first flower then each flower needs to be hand-pollinated. Then the beans are branded (to prevent theft), harvested, cured and air-dried for up to one month (during that time they’re rolled up and stored away each evening to prevent condensation and theft.)
Vanilla cultivation is also dangerous business. Because this valuable crop is cultivated in impoverished countries, looting, theft and violence are unfortunately common.
Considering how little vanilla is used in baking, I don’t mind buy top-quality vanilla, which costs little more than commercial varieties but is infinitely better.
How do I substitute vanilla bean paste for vanilla beans or vanilla extract?
There are no hard and fast rules, as some pastes are stronger than others. Generally speaking, you can use 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste instead of 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. To replace 1 vanilla bean, use 2 teaspoons of vanilla bean paste.
What is single-fold and double-fold vanilla?
Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol. Commercially-available extract has a very high ratio of beans-to-alcohol: single-fold vanilla has 12 ounces of vanilla beans (about 100 beans) per gallon of alcohol. Double-fold has twice as many and is mostly used for professional applications.
How do you store vanilla extract?
Vanilla extracts are generally packed in amber-colored bottles, since light and heat are the biggest enemies of extracts. Store then in a dark place (not the refrigerator, since condensation can cause them to spoil.) Most extracts will retain their potency for a year.
Buy pure vanilla extracts from sources that sell lots of extract, since stock rotates frequently.
Vanilla beans should be moist, never brittle, when you buy them.
To keep vanilla beans moist and plump, store them in airtight bags in a cool, dark place (not the refrigerator, since moisture can cause them to mold.) Once used, you can rinse and dry vanilla beans and re-use them for infusing, as they still contain lots of precious flavor. Well-dried vanilla beans can also be buried and stored in a container of sugar for a few weeks to make vanilla sugar.
Why is there alcohol in vanilla?
Alcohol is an excellent base for infusing and for preserving, and it doesn’t spoil. Most vanilla extracts are in an base of about 35% alcohol. There are vanilla extracts without alcohol for those wishing to avoid it (most does cook out during baking, but trace amounts do remain.)
Remarkably, alcohol also changes the way your senses ‘taste’ flavors, so I add a bit of vanilla extract to recipes even if I’ve infused them with vanilla beans.
Want more information?
Read one of the best books on vanilla, where you’ll find historical and cultural information in this useful volume, from Patricia Rain, one of the world’s leading experts on vanilla.