A Baker's Guide to the (Many) Types of Vanilla

Learn the difference between vanilla beans, extract, and paste, plus suitable substitutions for each.

No doubt you've heard the word "vanilla" used to describe all things bland and boring. This is a grave injustice! Vanilla has an intense, rich flavor that can actually enhance both sweet and savory dishes, from ice cream and cakes to hearty stews. Any baker will tell you that this ingredient is an ace in the hole—just a few drops can transform. Even the scent can carry you off to faraway times and places.

But using vanilla can also be confusing, since it comes in many different forms. Beans, paste, extract—they all describe vanilla. As a general rule, if a recipe calls for vanilla beans, a teaspoon of either vanilla paste or vanilla extract can work as a great substitute. Alternately, you can use the seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean in place of a teaspoon of extract.

Still have questions? Here's a breakdown of the many types of vanilla, giving you the base you need to make the most of this amazing ingredient.

Cooking With Vanilla Bean

Vanilla comes from the pods of the vanilla plant, an orchid with many species, including Mexican, Tahiti, and West Indian. These pods carry pinpoint-sized black seeds that contain the chemical vanillin. Vanillin is the source of the floral flavor that we know as vanilla. Interestingly, most of the world's vanilla comes from Madagascar.

What we call vanilla "beans" are actually the pods from a vanilla plant that contain tiny seeds inside them. Vanilla bean is also a flavor. It is usually intense and deeply vanilla-forward, with flecks of vanilla bean strewn through the white of, say, an iced cookie or ice cream. Vanilla bean can be used in a truly wide array of desserts, including semifreddo.

When using vanilla beans in a recipe, cut the end of the vanilla bean pod and then split it lengthwise down the middle using a sharp paring knife. Gently scrape out the seeds from the top down to the other end. Save the empty pod to soak in your favorite spirit or to make your own vanilla extract.

Cooking With Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Paste

Vanilla extract is a solution made using the black seeds of this vanilla plant. The kind of vanilla extract that uses these seeds is called "pure vanilla extract." This is the familiar, potent liquid from the tiny brown bottle with a heavenly scent.

Vanilla extract is made by soaking cured vanilla pods in a mixture of alcohol and water. The alcohol helps to fully extract flavor. It also increases pure vanilla extract's shelf life. According to the FDA, pure vanilla extract must be at least 35 percent alcohol.

Vanilla extract is definitely the most popular vanilla option out there because it's usually the easiest to find at your local grocery store. This is the type of vanilla commonly called for in cakes, cookies, and a host of other baked goods, right on down to riffs on French toast. But like vanilla beans themselves, vanilla extract tends to be expensive.

Vanilla Extract Substitutes

Along with vanilla bean, vanilla bean paste is a great vanilla extract substitute (especially for vanilla frosting, custard, or ice cream). You can also make your own vanilla extract by placing about six vanilla beans in an 8-ounce jar and covering it with one cup of vodka. That's because vodka has a neutral flavor so it won't mask that pure vanilla flavor.

Imitation Vanilla vs. Pure Vanilla Extract

Artificial vanilla extract is a lab-made solution that seeks to replicate pure vanilla extract but without using beans. Food scientists accomplish this by creating synthetic vanillin—the same chemical that gives natural vanilla its flavor. More than 90 percent of vanilla extracts on the market are artificial. They tend to cost far less than pure vanilla extract.

The good news is that artificial vanilla extract does a wonderful job of subbing for the real thing. In fact, food scientists are able to concentrate higher levels of vanilla in the lab-made extract, often leading to more vanilla flavor. If you're baking, imitation vanilla extract is a great substitute for pure vanilla extract. However, if you're making icing, pudding, creams, or a no-bake dessert, artificial vanilla can sometimes have a bitter aftertaste, so experts recommend sticking to pure vanilla extract.

Vanilla Paste vs. Extract

In general, you can use vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste interchangeably. Vanilla paste has a syrup-like consistency and is a blend of vanilla extract and vanilla powder mixed into a paste. Vanilla paste has an eye-opening intensity, and it's flecked with specks of vanilla bean.

Vanilla paste is easier to use than beans, which require the added step of extracting them from the vanilla pod. Due to its intensity, vanilla bean paste makes sense to use when vanilla is at the heart of a recipe (like vanilla cake) rather than one ingredient among many (like sugar cookies).

What Is Vanilla Powder?

Vanilla powder is vanilla beans ground into a flour. This powder is often mixed with sugar, but the best kind isn't. Like vanilla paste, vanilla powder packs an aromatic wallop. It can be used in place of extract. It can also go where extract can't: dusting hot-from-the-oven cookies, or sprinkling on newly made doughnuts and cakes.

French Vanilla vs. Vanilla

French vanilla is a flavor, not an ingredient. It's made to resemble an old style of ice cream that used eggs. This gives French vanilla a custardy tinge, a slight richness that pulls it away from the pure floral fragrance of unadorned vanilla.

You can find French vanilla coffee creamer, chai latte mix, protein shakes, and ice cream. Confusingly, though, French vanilla now also appears as an ingredient—as an extract. While this extract may have a place, don't use it as a substitute for the others.

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