This essential flavoring comes from the beanlike fruit of a tropical orchid. The vanilla flower blooms for just one day each year, when it produces the fruit.
How to Choose Vanilla
Vanilla is primarily available in three forms: beans, extract, and paste. Beans should be soft and pliable; while expensive, they offer the truest and strongest vanilla taste. Extract, made by soaking chopped beans in an alcohol solution to extract flavor, loses potency when heated. Be sure the bottle says “pure vanilla extract”—some extracts are adulterated with synthetic flavorings, and “Imitation” vanilla extract contains only those. Vanilla bean paste is a thick liquid that contains both extract and seeds. Unless you’re sure you’re purchasing from a reputable source, avoid Mexican vanilla, which may contain toxic coumarin, whose use in food the FDA has banned.
How to Store Vanilla
If tightly wrapped and kept refrigerated in an airtight glass jar, whole beans will last for six months. Extracts and paste last indefinitely if kept tightly sealed in a cool, dark place. Check the potency of all three before using.
How to Prepare Vanilla
Slice whole beans lengthwise and scrape out the tiny seeds; steep seeds and pod in liquid, discarding the pod before baking or cooking.
How to Use Vanilla
Thought of primarily as a dessert flavoring, vanilla also works well with savory dishes, like chicken and fruit-based sauces served with pork. Vanilla bean paste can be used as you would vanilla beans—you get the seeds and the rich flavor of beans without the work.
Real Simple Vanilla Recipes:
- Vanilla Ice Cream With Strawberry-Rhubarb Sauce
- Yellow Cupcakes With Vanilla Frosting and Nonpareils
- Yellow Cake With Vanilla Frosting and White Chocolate Chips
- Cupcakes With Vanilla Ice Cream Frosting
- Vanilla Frosting
Fruits and vegetables at their peak right now.
Find out what's in season in your area right now, then locate a farmers' market near you.