Vanilla, the most basic and common flavoring agent of all baking (and some savory cooking), can actually be a little bit confusing these days. With so many products available, from extracts to paste, powders to whole beans, how to choose is fraught with peril, especially if your recipe specifies one or another without explaining why. Without that extra information, it can make a baker pause. If it calls for paste, can I substitute extract? If it calls for a whole bean, would paste suffice? Further, vanilla is expensive (the real stuff, anyway), so it’s important to feel confident about what we’re buying, and why.
Here's the scoop.
Easy never tasted so awesome.
Vanilla extract is the most common application for this flavor, and the one most commonly found in kitchens. Fundamentally, it’s the essence of the whole pod extracted through steeping (like tea), usually in an alcohol base liquid. (You can even make your own with vodka or bourbon or rum: Just buy some vanilla pods, slice them open and let them steep in the booze for a couple of months, then strain).
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If you’re feeling like you can only afford one type of vanilla in your pantry, extract is your go-to choice. Free of the tiny specks that come with the beans or paste, extract is a smart choice for desserts where you wouldn’t see them anyway: darker cakes, cookies, and the like.
Best brands: My go-to brand for any vanilla product is Nielsen-Massey. The 8-ounce bottle ($38, amazon.com) will be a better value for you than the smaller 4 ounces. If you bake a lot, say minimum twice a week, or if you bake in bulk, say a gabillion batches of holiday cookies, you may want to invest in the pro-size 32-ounce bottle. It is about $110, but the per-ounce price is more than a dollar less than the 8 oz. price, so if you think you will go through it in the next couple of years, it can be a smart investment. Best budget buy will be McCormick Pure Vanilla extract (8 ounces for $17, amazon.com), which is about half the price, but is still a good quality product and has the benefit of also being available at most grocery stores.
Buy It: Nielsen-Massey Pure Vanilla Extract 8 oz. ($37.95), amazon.com; McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract 8 oz. ($17.48), amazon.com
This thick, syrupy product is made by combining extracts with speck from the beans which gets you the same intense flavor as extract, and the bonus of the little tell-tale seeds that let everyone know you used real vanilla. The thicker paste also does not add liquid to your baking, so nothing gets diluted. Vanilla paste is especially useful in things like buttercream where you want to limit liquidity. This is a great product to use when you want to see the seeds, but not sacrifice an expensive whole bean, so think ice cream, custards, caramels, frostings and the like.
Best brands: Again, my favorite brand for quality vanilla is going to be Nielsen Massey (4 ounces for $30, amazon.com), and a 4-ounce jar should be enough for those special needs. For a savings, you can get the Sonoma Syrup Company Vanilla Bean Crush (8 ounces for $45, amazon.com), which will also give you the telltale seeds, at about $2 less per ounce.
Buy It: Nielsen-Massey 4 oz. Vanilla Paste 4 oz. ($29.66), amazon.com; Sonoma Syrup Co. Vanilla Bean Crush 8 ounce ($44.94), amazon.com
Working with a whole vanilla bean is amazing. The moment you split it open, your whole room will fill with scent, and nothing can ever really compare with that super fresh floral flavor. Vanilla beans are also the most expensive way to buy and incorporate vanilla, so I save it for super special occasions, and then get the most out of them. You don’t want to buy more than you intend to use within a month, as they can dry out easily.
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Here’s a way to get even more magic from that bean: Once you have scraped the pod for your chosen recipe, take the spent pod and bury it in sugar in a sealed container for a week, and you will have beautifully vanilla scented sugar for use in recipes (I love it on berries all summer long). You can also steep the spent pod in warm cream, then chill the cream and whip for a Chantilly topping.
Best brands: Nielsen-Massey prices its gourmet beans at around $9 per bean (2 beans for $19, amazon.com); its budget-conscious Madagascar beans are about half that (2 beans for $9, amazon.com). Another good source for vanilla beans is Heilala (2 beans for $15, amazon.com), which does an amazing job of giving back to grower communities.
Buy It: Nielsen-Massey Gourmet Vanilla Beans 2-bean vial ($18.95), amazon.com; Nielsen-Massey Organic Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans 2-bean vial ($8.95), amazon.com; Hand-Selected Whole Heilala Vanilla Beans from Polynesia Two-Pack ($14.97), amazon.com
The good news is that there are easy ways to substitute what’s in your pantry for what isn’t.
No vanilla beans? Substitute 3 teaspoons of extract or vanilla paste (which has the added benefit of those teeny flecks of bean) for the scrapings of one whole bean.
No vanilla paste? Substitute vanilla extract in a 1:1 ratio for paste in recipes.
No vanilla extract? If you’ve got paste on hand, it’s a 1:1 substitution ratio. If there’s a vanilla bean kicking around your kitchen, you can substitute the scraping of one pod for 1 teaspoon of extract. Want to blow your baking mind? Consider subbing bourbon.
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