Baking Tips: What You Need To Know About Vanilla


If you’ve ever baked a sweet treat, chances are the recipe called for some vanilla. In spite of its association with being “plain”, this flavoring is often the secret to a fuller rounder depth of flavor. Here’s what you need to know about Vanilla.

Imitation Vs. Pure Extract

When you’re buying a bottle of vanilla extract at the store, you often have two options; imitation vanilla flavoring or pure extract.

Pure vanilla extract is made by harvesting the vanilla beans and steeping them in ethyl alcohol and water. Because of the labor involved in hand-harvesting the vanilla beans, it often has a higher price tag attached.

Meanwhile, imitation vanilla flavoring is made with synthetic vanillin, which is the compound in vanilla that makes it taste like vanilla. It does not contain any alcohol and is often less expensive.

Extracts, Pastes, and Powders

Most people are familiar with the bottle of liquid extract, but vanilla can also come in other forms that are useful for different applications.

Vanilla bean paste is exactly what it claims to be; a paste made from vanilla beans. It shines in applications like Ice Cream or Creme Brulee where you want the look of the vanilla bean to come through.

Vanilla powder is when the extract is “encapsulated in a cornstarch base” and will dissolve when blended with liquid. It comes in handy when you want to add flavor but don’t want the slight discoloration associated with Vanilla, like in icings or cakes.

Single-Origin Vanilla

Matt Nielsen of Nielsen-Massey Fine Vanillas & Flavors recently spoke with the AP about the different kinds of vanilla additives for the home baker. He says that the single-origin Vanillas “shine in their distinct ways, such as high-heat application for Indonesian, chocolate dishes for Ugandan, etc.”

The most common vanilla varieties include Madagascar Bourbon, which is what most people think of when they think of vanilla, to Tahitian, which is popular for wedding cakes.

DIY Vanilla Extract

It is possible to make your own vanilla extract at home! All you need are some vanilla beans and a clear alcohol like vodka. Split the beans down the middle and place them in a resealable bottle or jar then top off with the alcohol. Let steep for at least a month before using in your recipes.