From Scratch: Vanilla 101

February 2, 2012

Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Sarah Copeland

Vanilla is a culinary workhorse. The tropical spice is slipped into nearly every baked good recipe on the planet, infused into custards and puddings, and even used in savory marinades, sauces, and beers. Though a teaspoon here and there may seem insignificant, vanilla acts to enhance and draw attention to more powerful flavors (like chocolate!) and can hold its own with delicate ingredients, too.

The scent of pure vanilla is intoxicatingly warm and sweet and should not be confused with imitation vanilla varieties (made from a wood polymer). A complicated harvesting and curing process ups the cost of pure vanilla, but your work in the kitchen will reap the benefits of careful purchasing. 

Harvesting the Bean

Vanilla beans are the fruit of a rare vine orchid that must be hand pollinated in order for the valuable pods to be cultivated. After the flower is pollinated, the bean needs nearly a year to mature fully. Then harvested pods are cured over a period of several months. First, the beans are quickly dipped in boiling water then heated in the sun. Once the beans are hot, they are wrapped in blankets and allowed to sweat, which allows them to brown and develop flavor without losing moisture. The drying and sweating process is repeated until the beans have reached their desired color and concentration.

Common Varieties
Vanilla originated in the Americas in the area just cradling the equator from Central Mexico into northern Central America.

  • Bourbon-Madagascar beans are grown in Madagascar and the West Indian island of Réunion. This area of the world supplies the bulk of the international vanilla crop. These beans are long and thin with a heady sweetness. 
  • Mexican vanilla is grown near Veracruz, Mexico. These pods are thicker with a nuanced, smooth flavor.
  • Tahitian beans are wildly aromatic and stuffed with fragrant pulp. The beans tend to be deeper in color than vanilla from Mexico and Madagascar, but the flavor is more subtle.  

Vanilla Incarnations

  • Vanilla beans are plump and loaded with tiny black seeds. Beans are perfect for use in infusions (custards, soups, sauces) and in flavoring sugar.
  • Vanilla paste is a pastry chef’s secret weapon. The vanilla seeds are extracted and made into a thick, concentrated syrup with the addition of vanilla extract and often a little sugar.
  • Vanilla powder is the whole dried bean that has been ground until powdery. The powder is excellent for use in baked goods and premade mixes because its flavor does not evaporate with heat or when exposed to air.
  • Vanilla extract is made by soaking chopped vanilla beans in alcohol and water and aging the mixture for several months. (Natural vanilla extract is made with little to no alcohol.) 
  • Pure vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon and 35% alcohol. Be on the lookout for double- and triple-strength extracts.

Selection and Storage

  • Do not be deterred by the whitish film on extra-expensive vanilla beans. This film is pure vanillin and it gives the bean its characteristic flavor and scent.
  • Select grades of beans based on your needs -- if you will be primarily using vanilla to infuse your pastry creations, consider purchasing chopped beans or lower grades.
  • Vanilla beans should be tightly bundled in plastic wrap then placed in an airtight jar or plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator.
  • Vanilla extract should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

Using Vanilla

  • To strip the vanilla pod of its seeds, split the bean with a sharp knife (without cutting all the way through) and peel apart the outer skin of the bean to reveal the seeds. Use the edge of the knife to scrape all the pulp out. Save the bean to make vanilla sugar or to store for later infusions.
  • Tuck a used vanilla bean into an air-tight container of sugar and within a few days, the sugar will have absorbed the bean’s heavenly scent and may even be sparsely speckled with vanilla seeds. Use the sugar for baking or for an extra special addition to afternoon tea.
  • Make your own vanilla extract by adding a split bean to 3/4 cup vodka and allowing the mixture to age for six months.
  • If adding vanilla extract to a hot mixture, wait a bit for it to cool off as the heat will begin to degrade the delicate flavor of the extract. 
  • Pair buttery vanilla sauces with sweet, briny shellfish or add a bit of vanilla powder or paste to your spice mix for pulled pork.

Vanilla Egg Cream "Nutella" Pudding ingredients
Photos by Sarah Shatz


Vanilla Bean Cheesecake
Picnic Cake
Vanilla Egg Cream [FOOD 52] (pictured above, left)
Seafood-Citrus Salad with Vanilla Bean-Black Pepper Vinaigrette [FOOD 52]
Warm Custard Spoon Bread [FOOD 52]
"Nutella" Pudding [FOOD 52] (ingredients pictured above, right)

What's your favorite way to use vanilla? Are you in the whole bean or extract camp? Share your cooking tips and serving suggestions in the comments section below or upload a recipe!

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Uses for Leftover Bread.

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