But its usefulness is not limited to dessert. Vanilla has its own character, and it serves as a valuable flavor lifter. It can soften sharp flavors and invigorate earthy ones.
If you've ever wondered what makes vanilla so special, or how you can get the most from the vanilla you buy, we have answers for you! A few facts here may shock you (seriously) but don’t fret: It’s all G-rated, and after reading this, you’ll never think of vanilla as tame again!
Where Does Vanilla Come From?
Vanilla begins its life as the seed pod of the climbing orchid, one of the three edible vanilla orchid species. Vanilla orchids are native to Mexico; the Aztecs developed the lengthy process of curing and drying that transforms the smooth, blasé green seed pods into perfumed, shriveled black "beans" (not being legumes, vanilla beans are technically a fruit).
Veracruz is the heart of Mexico’s vanilla industry today. But that industry is tiny—the majority of world production now is in Madagascar, the massive island nation off Africa's southeast coast.
What Makes Vanilla Taste and Smell So Distinctive?
The chemical compound vanillin is chiefly responsible for vanilla's personality; there's simply nothing else like it. Vanillin can be produced by artificial means, but when you buy imitation vanilla extract, that’s all you get: vanillin. Therefore, imitation vanilla extract can smell and taste one-dimensional.
But natural vanilla contains over 250 other compounds that contribute to its flavor and aroma. At harvest time, vanilla beans are smooth and green, with none of their trademark aroma, because there’s no vanillin in them yet!
The Reason Real Vanilla Is Expensive
In short, labor. It takes a lot of time to cultivate and process vanilla, and it's not the sort of crop that takes to industrial planting. Vanilla thrives best on small farms in a narrow band in the tropics. A newly planted vine won't even produce a flower until three years have passed. Vanilla orchids bloom for less than a day, and to ensure a good yield, the flowers are pollinated by hand. Curing and drying the beans takes six to nine months.
Unstable climates in Madagascar—political and natural—led to record-high prices in 2017 and 2018. Combined with rising global demand for vanilla in processed foods, vanilla farmers and producers were put in a tricky spot.
Vanilla beans grown in Madagascar often have a little tattoo on them, like how ranchers brand cattle. It's pricked in while the bean is still green to make a subtle pattern of pock marks on the cured bean. This is to deter vanilla bean thieves. That’s how valuable and time-consuming vanilla farming is. Can you think of another food plant that gets branded?
Until we have tropical forest biodomes orbiting in space, there's simply not enough real vanilla to meet the global demand for it. The majority of vanilla-flavored processed foods we eat are made with imitation vanilla. The ice cream and beverage industries are two big users. Even the black specks in many mass-market vanilla ice creams (my grandfather used to call them "fly specks") are synthetic.
Major Varieties of Vanilla Bean
- Bourbon Vanilla: This, the more common of the two species of commercially grown vanilla, has nothing to do with the bourbon you drink. Bourbon vanilla was named after Ile de Bourbon (now Reunion Island), off the coast of Madagascar. Today, all vanilla grown in Madagascar is Bourbon. It has a classic vanilla aroma, with tobacco and woody notes.
- Tahitian Vanilla: The less-common species, Tahitian vanilla, originated from Mexican stock. It was crossbred in the 1700s to become its own species and then planted in Tahiti beginning in 1789. You’re unlikely to see Tahitian vanilla beans unless you’re ordering from a specialty retailer. They are plumper and softer than Bourbon vanilla beans, and they don’t have as many seeds. Their aroma is slightly floral, and they work very well in fruit dishes (I love them with quince).
- Mexican Vanilla: Until the late 1800s, Mexico had a monopoly on vanilla bean production. Today, Mexico produces some of the world’s rarest and most sought-after vanilla beans. Mexican vanilla extract has a bad rap, because a lot of what we see on the market is synthetic.
If you see Mexican vanilla extract that’s quite cheap, it’s best to avoid it. Pure vanilla extract from Mexico, available through specialty retailers, tends to be more expensive than the run-of-the-mill grocery store vanilla.
What Are Vanilla Beans?
Whole vanilla beans are the entire cured and dried seed pod. Vanilla extract makes food sing, but vanilla beans make it really pop. Exquisite and expensive, vanilla beans are not an everyday ingredient for most of us. Do right by them, and they will do right by you.
How to Buy and Use Vanilla Beans
When shopping for vanilla beans, look for ones that are supple, not split or withered. Keep them loosely wrapped in an airtight container and store in a cool, dry spot. They will last indefinitely, but after about a year, their flavor dulls, and they lose pliability. Don’t freeze or refrigerate the beans—it makes them withered and brittle.
You don’t need to use the whole bean at once. If a recipe calls for half a bean, cut it in half crosswise, then split the bean half lengthwise. This keeps your unused half from drying out.
Best Recipes for Whole Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans communicate their flavor best in recipes that have a lot of moisture—think ice creams, custards, puddings, jams and jellies, frostings, syrups, and sauces. Recipes with a lot of flour, like cookies and cakes, tend to mute vanilla beans. If vanilla beans were 50 cents a pop, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but since you’re likely paying up to $15 per bean, you probably want to get the most bang for your buck.
Try vanilla bean in these recipes!
- French vanilla ice cream, rich and custardy, is made with real vanilla beans.
- These double vanilla cupcakes have vanilla beans in the batter and the frosting.
Don't Throw Away the Vanilla Hull!
A lot of chef-y recipes call for scraping the seeds from a vanilla bean pod, then discarding the hull. This is a waste! The hulls have a ton of flavor—more than the seeds, in fact. You can save those hulls for steeping in liquid to infuse vanilla bean’s mystique in future recipes.
I’m so bonkers over vanilla beans, I even save spent hulls. I rinse them off, let them air-dry, then stockpile them until I have enough to pulverize in my spice grinder. These ground, spent vanilla beans are not nearly as potent as new ones, but they are a fantastic addition to all sorts of things when you want subtle vanilla bean flavor: preserves, sauces, chocolate chip cookies. I even put a quarter teaspoon in chili or ragouts to round them out a little!
What Is Vanilla Bean Paste?
You may have seen jars of vanilla bean paste, which promises the flavor of vanilla beans in an easy-to-measure paste. Inside the jar is a gelatinous brown goo made of vanilla bean seeds and ground pods in a thickener vehicle like gum tragacanth or xantham gum.
I’m a big fan of vanilla bean paste. It delivers nearly the same potency of a freshly halved and scraped pod. The label of the jar should offer substitution amounts, which will vary depending on the paste’s concentration.
A Vanilla Extract Primer
Early American baking recipes often didn’t call for vanilla extract. Why? They didn’t have it! Vanilla extract only became a household staple in the late 1800s, when improvements in vanilla orchid pollination made vanilla much more affordable.
Now we add it to everything ... but what is vanilla extract? Let's look at each variety.
1. Pure Vanilla Extract
The FDA has very specific definitions for vanilla extract: a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid containing a minimum of 35% alcohol to 65% water.
Producers macerate or percolate chopped vanilla beans in water and alcohol. The beans can be all from one region, or a proprietary blend. Caramel color, sugar, and/or corn syrup are sometimes added, though it does not have to say so on the label. Some companies don’t add any sugar, and some add up to 30 percent.
Many spice and extract companies offer different vanilla extract blends: a cookie vanilla and an all-purpose vanilla. It’s completely fine to be a one-extract household, but it you’re curious, compare a few different blends or brands. A vanilla extract problem is less of a problem than a shoe problem. Vanilla takes up less space; it smells better, and it keeps for ages. You’ll work your way through it eventually.
2. Imitation Vanilla Extract
Vanillin, the main flavor and aroma compound in vanilla, was first synthesized in 1874 by two German chemists who isolated it from pine bark.
Vanillin can be made from a number of sources, and most imitation vanilla today is derived from lignin (an organic polymer found in wood and bark) or creosote. Real vanilla gets its flavor from dozens and dozens of organic components. Imitation vanilla? Just one, and that’s vanillin. Thus, imitation vanilla can come across as one-dimensional.
3. Clear Vanilla Flavoring
Pure vanilla extract is brown, so any clear vanilla extract is imitation, and should say so on the label. Cake decorators use it to keep frostings and fillings as white as possible. Interestingly enough, clear vanilla flavor is just imitation vanilla with no caramel color or dyes.
The Scoop on Imitation Vanilla
Here’s the news that will break your heart: Tasted side-by-side, there’s surprisingly little difference in recipes made with imitation vanilla extract versus the real stuff.
If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Make a batch of sugar cookie dough, and divide it in two. Flavor half with imitation vanilla extract, the other with real vanilla extract. After baking, if you can tell the difference in a blind taste test, I’ll pay you $100.
Well, maybe I’ll just pay you $1, because there is a difference. Imitation vanilla has that telltale “cheap vanilla ice cream” taste. Not awful, but not fully enticing. The less flour in a recipe, the more apparent it is. You can get away with imitation vanilla more in cake or cookies than pudding or ice cream.
Which Vanilla Extract to Buy?
It’s up to you. If you want to save some money, get the fake stuff. Unless you make a loud announcement before handing out your baking, no one will know the difference.
I buy pure vanilla extract, because I know some of my money is supporting tiny farms in developing countries. A lot of those growers are women. Real vanilla is a luxury you can—and should—feel good about. Think about the story and history summed up in every bottle! It’s amazing.
Is Homemade Vanilla Worth It?
Homemade vanilla is a fun project, but it will never measure up to the commercially produced extract. Given current vanilla bean prices, it can be more expensive to buy the ingredients than to just get a giant bottle of decent extract.
Makers of high-quality commercial vanilla extract use higher proportions of beans to liquid, employ time-tested proprietary extraction methods, and have access to the best beans in the industry, because they have buying power. So, in my opinion, commercial vanilla extract is a superior ingredient.
I know, I'm such a party pooper! If you do want to make your own vanilla extract, you’ll have the immensely pleasurable experience of handling the beans and enjoying their fragrance. It’s very much about the process, and there’s something to be said for that.
- Curious? We have very clear instructions for making your own extract here.
More Fun Vanilla Faqs!
I’m out of vanilla! Can I make this (cake/cookie/frosting/etc.)?
Probably. For centuries, vanilla didn’t appear in desserts, because the Western world didn’t yet know it existed. Sometimes I omit it from recipes on purpose, especially if it’s a deeply chocolate-y recipe or one that’s full of warming spices, so I can focus on those ingredients. That said, the plainer the recipe, the more you’ll notice the missing vanilla.
This cake/cookie recipe calls for a tablespoon of vanilla extract. Isn’t that a lot? Usually it’s just one teaspoon.
In the past few decades, pastry chefs have begun using a lot of vanilla extract in recipes. It gives them a noticeable depth. Give that tablespoon of extract a shot! We think you’ll love the results.
My mom told me you can measure vanilla extract using the bottle’s cap—one capful is a teaspoon.
Wow, do we have the same mom?! This is a very adorable myth, but not all caps are created equal. When accuracy counts, get your measuring spoons.
I read that imitation vanilla is made from beaver’s anal glands and coal.
Some imitation vanilla is made from vanillin derived from coal tar. Sounds creepy, right? But it won’t make you sick. In scientific terms, the source of molecules is irrelevant; once the molecules have been isolated, the vanillin should be quite pure. But if this makes you steamed, there’s a solution: Buy real vanilla.
No vanilla whatsoever is made from any part of beavers. There truly is a flavoring compound made from beaver gland secretions, but it’s not vanillin, and therefore not used in imitation vanilla. If it were, it would probably be even more expensive than real vanilla. If there’s one thing harder to get than orchid seed pods, it’s beaver secretions.
Is vanilla an aphrodisiac?
Some studies have said yes. Why not try a recipe below and see for yourself?
Excited About Vanilla? Make These Recipes!
- Lofthouse-Style Frosted Sugar Cookies are such a pure and simple pleasure.
- Cherry vanilla granola will give you a reason to leap out of bed in the morning.
- Orange and vanilla hot buttered rum!
- Vanilla with butternut squash? Seriously, you’ll love it.
- Cold buttermilk pudding—set with gelatin, like a panna cotta—is speckled with vanilla flecks.