Vanilla Bean, Paste, and Extract: Sorting it Out (Extract Exact Part II)

For Lydia Walshin, writer for The Perfect Pantry, chocolate and vanilla flavoring are the “Romeo and Juliet” of the culinary world.

The pairing, she explains, is a storied one, steeped in both culture and history:

“All the great chocolate desserts — ice cream, brownies, cakes and cookies — depend on vanilla to enhance the chocolate flavor. The Aztecs may have discovered this synergy, but the first people to spread the word were Spanish conquistadors, who got hooked on a chocolate drink flavored with vanilla at the court of Moctezuma, and sent vanilla pods back to Spain.”

And while her account is arguably simplified, her point is clear: without vanilla, the culinary world would be a lot less flavorful and rich. Vanilla, in its many forms, enhances and accents natural flavors, as discussed on yesterday’s blog.

But while understanding the different choices when it comes to selecting extracts is important, it is equally important for chefs to understand how to properly incorporate extract, and when it might be a better option to look at an alternative form, like fresh vanilla beans or vanilla paste.

Getting the Most out of Vanilla Extract

The key is to always think of vanilla extract as an accent note, meant to bring out natural flavors. There are many different ways to use extract, but it’s important that whatever its purpose, the extract is thoroughly blended with wet ingredients first, and that that flavor is allowed to diffuse for a minute before being added to the overall batter.

  1. Combine with other accent notes, like liqueurs or coffee, more deep and complex notes.
  2. Mix with spices, like nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and allspice. These sweet notes complement one another and bring a punch to breads, cakes, and muffins.
  3. Use to make icings, frosting, and glazes. Extracts are more subtle and “won’t overwhelm” other flavors, which is why they are perfect for finishing touches.
  4. Use in Savory Dishes for an unexpected twist: Most chefs confine vanilla and other extracts to sweet baked goods, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Vanilla flavor adds a light and sweet touch to white fish and starchy vegetables. Just make sure you go lighter than you would in a sweet dish, and that there is some element of sweet notes naturally to complement the extract.
  5. Leftover Extract: If a chef him or herself with vanilla extract that is past its prime, it can be surprisingly useful around the kitchen: pour into a bowl to “deodorize” microwaves, or swab to freshen a stale fridge.

Fresh Vanilla Beans: A Better Alternative?

There is something simply about the idea of using fresh vanilla beans in a dish that seems more upscale than an extract, but is it really “better”? And when should chefs consider going fresh?

It’s easy to see why vanilla beans can be pricy: the pods have to be harvested under certain conditions, dried, and then aged. In terms of potency, one vanilla bean is roughly equal to three teaspoons of extract, and must be scraped in order to be used in recipes.

Both the seeds and pods can be used, although the seeds themselves are more potent. The pods usually are used to infuse milks and creams in recipes like custards and ice creams. It’s important to scrape and use pods and seeds properly: check out this guide (scroll to bottom of the page).

For recipes that you want a deeper, infused flavor, seed pods may be the way to go over extract, if done correctly. Using fresh pods can also add texture (“vanilla bean”) that is not achieved by using extract.

Serious Eats highlights fresh pods at their best, with recipes from madeleines to mascarpone pie to vanilla bean pound cake.

Vanilla Bean Paste: Not just for Pastry Chefs

Vanilla bean paste may be even harder to find than fresh vanilla beans, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Vanilla bean paste, which allegedly debuted in the 1990’s, is a blend of extract, xanthum gum (a binder), and vanilla bean powder.

It is thinner than an almond paste and spreads easily. Potency wise, it is three times the strength of an extract. Most recipes call for a teaspoon or even less.

When to use it? It’s a matter of preference: paste can be used (with lesser amounts in recipes that use either vanilla beans or vanilla extract. Some chefs, according to Meagan Gordon, writer for The Kitchn, may find a gem in vanilla paste:

“In many ways, vanilla paste could be thought of as a great in between option. It’s essentially a small jar of the scraped-out vanilla pod, so you’re going to get that super fragrant, sweet, speckled end product with the convenience of a quick scoop of the teaspoon. I don’t find it all that much work to select, store, and use vanilla beans but some folks are less intimidated by the paste. I say whatever works and gets you excited about baking!”

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