How to Buy Vanilla and Vanilla FAQs

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.

Fresh Apricots Roasted with Vanilla Bean

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.

vanilla ice cream

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.

uncured Mexican vanilla beans vanilla powder

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.

vanilla beans

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?

vanilla_bookcover.jpg

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.



Related Links:

How to Use and Choose Vanilla Beans (Vanilla.com)

Mexican “Vanilla” with Coumarin No Bargain (FDA)

Ice Cream Making FAQs

Vanilla Ice Cream (Recipe)

Easy Chocolate Ice Cream (Recipe)

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream (Recipe)

Tips for making homemade ice cream softer

Recommended equipment to make ice cream

French Vanilla Ice Cream (Simply Recipes)

Meet your maker: buying an ice cream machine

Candied Bacon Ice Cream (Recipe)

15 comments

  • David – thanks for this great post! I consider myself a vanilla junky, I might run out of any spices, (including salt and pepper!) but never vanilla beans ;) The only question left: Should I get yet another book on vanilla… ;)

  • Hey David, love the post! I have to admit I did think bourbon vanilla had something to do with liquor. How embarrassing. But now I feel completely well informed, you gave some great info. Thanks ;)

  • Fantastic, everything I always wanted to know about vanilla but was too afraid to ask! After some timely tip-offs from bloggers in the know, I’ve started buying vanilla over the net at ridiculously cheap prices (through ebay and other ‘direct importers’) – I’m curious, have you come into contact with any of this bargain basement stuff and/or have thoughts as to its quality? It seems good to me, but I’m hardly the seasoned expert! :)

  • David there are few things I like more than in depth info on things I already like. This post on vanilla, and the previous one on cooking classes in Paris are great. I feel smarter already. I have such a hard time not putting good vanilla in most things too. I even found a salt infused with vanilla at Monoprix. Thanks for this :)

  • Nicky: I wrote this post when, gulp, I ran out of vanilla extract (and it’s impossible to find in supermarkets and food shops in Paris…) I only found vanilla ‘aroma’ which has glucose and artificial coloring.) And the professional-supply shops only sell pure vanilla by the litre!

    Melissa: Now next time you’ll try the Bourbon vanilla macarons at Laduree. : )

    Michele: I buy my vanilla at http://www.vanilla.com, from Paticia Rain. We bought from her at Chez Panisse and I still use her as my source for all things vanilla. I’ve never seen much super-cheap vanilla, but would be skeptical unless I could get a good sniff first. And since most people just use a few teaspoons a week, it’s really worth getting the good stuff. The last few years the wholesale price went up like 2000% (yes, really) but this year it’s gotten much cheaper. So stock up!

    Alisa: Yes, I’ve seen that salt and vanilla combo at Monoprix…so why can’t they sell pure vanilla extract there as well?

  • Yeah, what you can and can not get at “regular supermarkets” here keeps me baffled too. I’ve been having friends send or bring me vanilla from the US. Does Patricia Rain ship to France?

  • wow, thanks for the tips! i’m afraid i’ve been a generic vanilla essence and vanilla pod user, so i haven’t a clue that there’s so many variety!

  • What an informative post, thanks. I almost hesitate to ask, but what’s the scoop on vanilla powder? Is my labeled as real vanilla powder actually vanillan (the ucky wood by-product) or something equally awful?

  • Most vanilla powder is either:
    - whole vanilla beans, dried and ground up
    -vanilla bean pods without the seeds, dried and ground up
    -just vanilla seeds, sometimes called vanilla ‘caviar’, and quite expensive.

    If you buy your vanilla from a reputable source, and it’s labeled pure vanilla, it should not have vanillan in it. The US and European Countries have rather strict labeling laws. In the US, anything labeled ‘vanilla’, like vanilla Coke or Haagen-Daaz Vanilla Ice Cream, has to have real vanilla in it.

  • Hi, David, I posted something from Patricia Rain that I think you will enjoy.

    The Vanilla Queen Speaks:

    http://smallfarms.typepad.com/small_farms/2005/11/the_vanilla_que.html

    Please let your readers kmow what they can do to support the continued growth of real vanilla. Many thanks!

    Tana

  • Years and Years ago I saw a photograph of someone hand-pollonating a vanilla orchid. The tiny needle was almost invisible to the camera, it’s thinner than an acupuncture needle! It has to be as small and un-intrusive as a bee’s leg.

    When vanilla is cheap it scares me.

    But I’ve also caught distributors on this side of the trade “fattening” beans with water to make them pricier… so that stuff doesn’t just happen in “third-world” countries!

    Beautiful piece, I’ve sent it along to a few people. Can’t wait to see you next month!

  • It’s ironic how vanilla is the most sparse ingredient in pastries (1 tsp for a whole cake), but it’s also the most expensive! I think that 1 tsp costs more than the flour and sugar. When vanilla was expensive, I merely baked without it rather than turn to artificial flavorings. I might try to make my own extract now, since “organic-vanilla” on Ebay sells 30 bourbon vanilla beans for $20! I think I heard about this Ebay seller through Melissa.

  • thanks for all the great info! do you make your own vanilla sugar? I bought some here and my roommate said it made my vanilla ice cream taste like cookie dough :-(

  • I actaully made this and it was delicious. Though I didn’t have any demitasse cups. I hope you forgive me. (Incidentally isn’t a ‘small demitasse cup’ a pleonasm?)

  • David and Melissa,
    I know of but have not ordered from a website that only sells saffron, vanilla, and mushrooms. Their url is http://www.saffron.com
    Now despite the fact that I haven’t purchased from them, they seem to have a good reputation on eGullet for quality beans (they sell Mexican and Tahitian, for between $.25 and $1 per bean on average).

    Caveat emptor, but I’d love to hear if either of you have purchased from this vendor.

    Andrea
    in Albqueruque
    …who is going to dump my $1 Mexican extract bottle at this very moment. I should know better!