Vanilla-The Most Passionate Flavoring of Them All

Sunday May 4, 2014

after 6 months maturing on the vine, vanilla pods when ready for harvest look like string beans

Vanilla has been prized for centuries as one of the world’s most sought-after culinary flavors. Vanilla extract is as familiar to the home cook/baker as chocolate.  It is the most widely used spice with it’s comforting perfume and delicate floral flavor.  It is the most expensive spice after saffron. It is an extract from a large flowering wild tropical orchid vine with edible fruit pods indigenous to Mexico.  The secret of vanilla was first discovered by the Aztecs who cherished it and mixed it with unsweetened cacao to make a distinctive chocolate drink. The orchid plant was planted in other tropical regions like Indonesia, Tahiti, the Seychelles, and Madagascar on the island of Bourbon, named for the lineage of French kings. India and Africa are now growing vanilla orchids as well.

aged vanilla beans and vanilla vine

The long, green pod is fermented, or cured, in the sun in a baking/sweating process for several weeks until they shrivel up to develop the vanillin, the primary flavor of vanilla, that is encased within the skin-like walls of the pod.  The word vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, meaning “small scabbard,” and vaina, or “string bean,” which the pod looks like, especially when they are in a bunch.  It has been used extensively as a syrupy tincture by apothecaries as a medicinal stomach calmative, as well as being the main ingredient in Old Coca Cola.  It is called the Fragrance of the Year, showing up in perfumes (remember Shalimar by Guerlain?) that can make you smell like a warm cookie, candles, tobacco, and tea (my favorite tea, Kusmi ( is a small tin from France with China black tea infused with Bourbon vanilla), as well as a culinary spice. Before trying prescription sleep medication, try an all-natural alternative: Vanilla-scented candles are known to help people relax and get rid of anxiety. Vanilla essential oil has been used for centuries for its calming and soothing effects.

the wild vanilla orchid in bloom/Each plant flowers for just one day and it has to be hand-pollinated on that exact day or else it won't produce the vanilla bean "fruit" that's later harvested

Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract is the most readily available form of vanilla, in varying qualities, for the home baker.  Pure amber-colored liquid extracts, made from beans, alcohol, and water in a cold-percolated method like making coffee, are available in small ounce bottles in supermarkets, specialty food stores, and by mail order.  I asked food writer and vanilla expert Patricia Rain what was the best extract to use in baking.  She replied that the level of quality has to do with the alcohol content of the extract.  You want 35 to 44 percent, which will preserve the 250 inherent fragrance and flavor components in every bean which will give great character to your breads and complement other accent flavors, like coffee, cocoa, sweet spices, raisins, other extracts (almond, lemon, and orange) and spirits, like rum and brandy.  It melds with most all food from the New World, like corn (vanilla corn bread is fantastic).

Extract is the strongest pure flavoring of vanilla available to the home baker, although there are now some brands that are labeled double strength or “two fold,” which need to be used sparingly (use half as much as regular vanilla).  While it will smell alcoholic if you sniff the bottle, it will evaporate in the heat of the oven, leaving the elusive vanilla flavor.  It will have a watery consistency, never be thick.  One teaspoon of extract is sufficient to flavor a pound of bread dough; too much will taste harsh.

Brands like Cook’s, Neilsen-Massey (available through Williams-Sonoma), Spice Islands, and Penzeys, Ltd Spice House, are good choices.  McCormick-Schilling stabilizes their vanilla extract with sugar.  Vanilla extract lasts 3 years in a tightly capped bottle in a cool, dry place away from light or in the refrigerator, so if you use alot of vanilla, buy a 4-or 8-ounce bottle.  I store pieces of vanilla bean in my extract.  Imitation extracts, made from a wood-pulp by-product of the paper industry flavored with a coal-tar derivative, just can’t compare flavor-wise.

Bottles just labeled vanilla extract will have a blend of different types and grades of vanilla.  Single growing regions will be labeled in extracts from Bourbon, Mexico, or Tahiti.  Bourbon, from Madagascar (where labor is inexpensive), is the most affordable and common all-purpose extract.  It has a strong, almost musky, yet classic vanilla aroma I like with nuts, in cinnamon rolls, and in icings.  The best Mexican extract is rare and expensive, but available in the United States.  What you buy in those cheap liter bottles in the mercado are usually synthetic (they will contain 2 percent or less alcohol), possibly with toxic coumarin as a booster, so pass on the Mexican vanilla unless you know what you’re looking for.

The high-end Tahitian extract is showing up more on the market.  It is expensive, has a more floral, licorice-like aroma, and is considered a gourmet delicacy, even by professional bakers, especially nice in doughs with fresh and dried fruits.  Cookie Vanilla, by Cook’s, is a blend of Tahitian and Bourbon.  Some bakers make their own blend of extracts.  There are lots of instructions for making your own vanilla extract by placing beans in brandy or vodka.  I have never had great luck with this, as it takes lots of beans (1 to 3 are just not enough) to get anywhere near the flavor of a premium vanilla extract.  It would be better to grind whole beans and use that with vanilla extract.

Vanilla Paste

The next best thing to using vanilla extract is a relatively new form of vanilla called vanilla paste. It turns out that vanilla bean paste while it a product similar to vanilla extract, it is in fact much thicker than vanilla extract and contains flecks of the seeds. It’s actually a thin syrup; the vanilla scraped from the inside of the vanilla bean is combined with corn syrup to a pourable consistency. While I would never drink vanilla extract straight up since it is vanilla in alcohol(although you can splash it on your wrists as perfume), you can lick your fingers if they get some vanilla bean paste on them. It’s still a bit strong (not to mention expensive) to, for example, pour on your pancakes as a syrup, but it is perfect for addition to recipes. Remember Breyer’s vanilla ice cream with the vanilla flecks all through it? That is created in your ice cream recipes by using vanilla paste.

Whole Vanilla Beans

There is a knack to using vanilla beans. Either you use them or you don’t. You have to know how to care for them and handle them, just like a little living being. A lot of cooks don’t bother since extract and now vanilla paste are so darn easy to use with all the punch of the flavor intact.

While definitely more time-consuming to use than vanilla extract, to get the purest vanilla flavor without the alcohol, you need to use a whole bean.  Different types of beans will each give a different flavor to your breads.  Choose from Mexican (the most brittle and shriveled), Madagascar or Bourbon (long and slender–if these have reflective crystals on them, use them, they have a high concentration of vanillin), Indonesian, and Tahitian (the most expensive, the plumpest, and most moist).  If my bean is very moist, I keep it in plastic freezer bags in the freezer to prevent mildewing.  Otherwise, store sleek, flexible beans in a cool, dark place in plastic or a glass jar.  Beans should smell like vanilla, never “off” or “bad.”  If your bean is brittle, soak it in warm water or milk until pliable before splitting.  You can use a bean a few times, wiping it dry after use.

To use, cut the bean in half, then split in half again lengthwise with a small knife.  Scrape the seeds into milk or other liquid, then throw the oil-rich skin in (that is where all the flavor is).   Let the milk steep 10 minutes before removing the bean and placing in the bread machine.  I like the flecks in bread from the seeds; it reminds me of real vanilla ice cream from when I was a kid.  Pieces of vanilla bean are good in the drip basket while making coffee or stored in whole coffee beans.

I keep a quart springtop jar with pieces of vanilla bean (chop a bean into 4 or 5 pieces) and cover them with 3 to 4 cups of granulated sugar or powdered sugar.  They are potent for about 6 months and I just keep adding more sugar to cover.  Use the vanilla sugar in addition to the vanilla extract whenever regular sugar is called for in a sweet bread or icing.  Vanilla powdered sugar is great for just plain dusting a fresh loaf of sweet or holiday bread, a cake or cupcakes. When using the whole bean, determining how to measure the amount of vanilla you’ll need is simple: One vanilla bean, 1-inch in length, is equal to 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract or 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste.

Vanilla growing zone on the island of Madagascar/While there are more than 50 species of vanilla orchid, only three are used commercially – Vanilla Planifolia (Bourbon), Vanilla Tahitensis (Tahitian) and Vanilla Pompona (rarely grown)

Ground Vanilla Beans (Whole Vanilla Bean Powder)

Whole vanilla beans can be finely ground, giving a distinct and strong vanilla flavor.  This is a rich, complex vanilla bean flavor (usually a blend of vanilla beans) that adds delicious flavors to any smoothie, dessert or other recipe. Vanilla powder actually “ages” much like wine, and many people are surprised at how it gets better with time. It has a very long shelf life, too, and doesn’t require refrigeration. It is available now from Nielsen-Massey.  Use a pinch in bread doughs.  You will be able to see the vanilla flecks in the finished loaf.  I am using this type of vanilla more and more as it mixes with the dry ingredients like flour so easily. Use vanilla powder in chocolate smoothies, along with just a pinch of Himalayan salt. The combination of vanilla plus a small amount of salt adds an amazing complexity to almost any chocolate smoothie.

Patricia Rain gave me the technique for grinding whole beans, so you can make your own and this is a good way to use up beans that have been used 3 or 4 times already.   Place the beans on a clean baking sheet and dry in a 200º oven for 10 minutes to just toast.  You can do this in a skillet, but I like the oven method better since there is less chance of getting a toasted flavor.  Remove from the oven and cool before breaking into pieces and grinding in a coffee grinder.  Store in plastic or a glass jar in a cool, dark place.

Powdered Vanilla

Powdered vanilla, not to be confused with vanilla powder, which is very popular in Europe, is made by spraying ribbons of vanilla in radiant ovens onto sheets of dextrose. Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Powder is a free-flowing “sugar and alcohol-free”, dry product which may be used as a replacement for pure vanilla in any recipe. It is creamy-white instead of the brown color associated with the extract and bean.  It is available from Nielsen-Massey (this brand has no sugar), McCormick, India Tree, and Cook’s in 2-ounce jars (easily found at Safeway supermarket).  It can end up in a big, dry lump in the jar; that’s okay, just crumble off what you need.  Long used in cake mixes, it is nice in streusel crumb toppings and in doughs along with vanilla extract,sweet doughs mixed with the flour, in whipped cream, sprinkled on French toast, and with chocolate.  Use it to enhance the flavor of coffee, tea, colas, fresh fruit and baked goods. Use measure for measure when substituting for extract. Use: 1 tsp vanilla powder = 1 tsp vanilla extract.

How Are Vanilla Beans Processed

The long and labor-intensive process helps explain the high cost of vanilla.The green pods are harvested and dropped into hot water for about one minute to kill them. Then the beans are left out in the sun each day for a few hours to cure and wrapped in blankets and taken indoors to “sweat” at night. This daily process goes on for five to six months, converting the glucovanillin inside the thousands of tiny seeds in each pod, to glucose and vanillin. The beans gradually turn from their original plump green color, to a dark waxy chocolate brown color.


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