For all the clichés that equate vanilla with blandness (IT IS NOT) or simplicity, vanilla can actually be extremely complex. There are the beans, the origins, the extracts, the artificial flavorings, and so much more. Before vanilla was widely cultivated, people used to used to flavor their cakes, custards, and creams with ambergris, which, basically, is a big chunk of stuff that sperm whales “expel.” And that’s the nicest way to describe it. So you be grateful for that vanilla.
A while ago, my friend Brandice, baker and cake decorator extraordinaire, sent me a great question about the vanilla and the ways that different vanilla products can be used. She said, “I have a big order coming up, and I’m using a new recipe that calls for vanilla beans. When I got online to order them, I kept seeing vanilla bean paste. I’m not comfortable using it for this order, but was considering ordering some in for some new recipes I’ve been looking into. Have you ever used it? I’ve read a lot of conflicting opinions on what is best and would love to hear your thoughts.”
Yes, I have eight different kinds of vanilla—and I use them all for different things!
I spent almost two years working in the pastry department and then as the concierge at Dean & DeLuca’s flagship store in SoHo. (As concierge, I had to be able to explain and teach shoppers how to use every product we sold—and we sold thousands of gourmet food items.) During that time, I learned a LOT about vanilla.
First, real vanilla extract comes from real vanilla beans, so it tends to be more expensive than artificial flavorings. Artificial vanillas vary widely in quality, flavor, and source; some are synthetic while others are manufactured using other “natural” flavorings, some more appealing than others. Real vanilla beans can be grown in a lot of tropical climates, but you’ll commonly see vanillas from Madagascar, Tahiti, and Mexico. When using pure vanilla extracts, I find that Madagascar Bourbon (named for the island, not the liquor) vanilla often is very pungent and is great for flavoring desserts that use chocolate or other strong flavorings; it’s bold enough to hold it’s own. It’s a great “all purpose” vanilla. Tahitian vanilla tends to be a bit more floral; I love to pair it with other fruity flavors or in cakes or custards that benefit from a very delicate vanilla aroma. Mexican vanillas always seems a bit more caramely, to me; I use mine for rice pudding, caramel making, and chocolate chip cookies. Another great all purpose vanilla.
Vanilla bean paste is a great option for cakes, baked goods, and frostings; it is typically made from ground vanilla beans mixed with vanilla extract, sugar (which acts as a preservative), and minimal amounts of stabilizing agents and chemical preservatives. Actual vanilla beans have a slightly more piquant flavor that is slightly more pure, but you have to simmer them in a liquid or soak them in an alcohol to extract the flavor; that makes it difficult to use them for baked goods. I LOVE using vanilla bean paste because it gives a truer vanilla bean flavor—plus the signature little dark seed specks that you see in vanilla bean ice cream, etc.—without the high costs of vanilla beans. Paste also has a longer shelf life.
For things like custards and panna cotta, where simmering a liquid is part of the process and there are very few other ingredients to compete with the flavor of the vanilla, I stick to vanilla beans. But for frostings, cakes, cookies, the vanilla bean paste is a great, easy, more frugal way to go.
Not all vanilla products are created equal; some can be a waste of money because the flavor isn’t great. I use the Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Bean Paste, beans, and extracts, and I love them, but there are a lot of other great options out there, from Penzey’s to Watkin’s and even the classic McCormick. One of my friends swears by Costco’s vanilla. I also like the flavor of Molina vanilla from Mexico, which blends true vanilla extracts with some artificial flavors. It’s super cheap and is great for basic baked goods.
So now that you know, don’t skimp! One of my baking secrets is that I almost always double the vanilla in any recipe.