Not Just “Plain Vanilla”

December has arrived at last, bringing with it thoughts of snow, holidays, and above all else, baking! Pretty soon pastry aficionados all around the world will begin their marathon baking sprees, preparing doughs of all flavors and colors in mass quantities, racing to make enough to fill countless gift boxes. Sugar and flour will be flying off the grocery store shelves, as these passionate bakers stock up on the basics, but there is one vital ingredient that is all too often overlooked. Vanilla plays such a critical role to sweets in general, and hardly a recipe out there would dare to exclude it. For all of the flavor that it brings to the party, it certainly doesn’t get its fair share of attention, and some people think it’s okay to pinch pennies and pick up that imitation vanilla, or even leave it out altogether. Well, I’m here today to tell you it’s not! Be demanding when it comes to quality vanilla, and you’ll notice the difference in the finished product.

I thought I would bring this up because recently, I discovered that my own supply of vanilla extract was dwindling, and it seemed about time that I just order it in bulk. Considering how much of this stuff I run through in a mere month, it would ultimately be a big savings, despite the initial investment. So off I went, scouring the internet for different estimates, and it was then that I realized: I have no idea what kind of vanilla I want! Madagascar is the norm that tends to turn up in my pantry the most, but what’s this about Tahitian, which sounds so delicate and lovely, or Mexican, one of the most expensive options out there? Ordering a gallon of the Madagascar, I also requested small samples of the others, and began a journey of vanilla discovery.

The real standout of the bunch turned out to be the Tahitian vanilla. Bearing a delicate floral scent, the flavor is very smooth and mellow, albeit somewhat reserved. So aromatic, I was tempted to use it as perfume, this is one heady extract. It’s not something that you would add to a richly flavored cake or cookie, as it may get lost in the mix, but instead it would be beautifully suited to flavor a light custard or ice cream. This ultimately proved to be my favorite version, despite its limited availability and application; Just be sure to save it for something really special and treat yourself with this one.

Mexican vanilla turned out to be the polar opposite of the previous experience- Bold, brassy, and in-you-face, this is not a flavor to be pushed to the side. Somewhat sharp and astringent, it has a much more intense, concentrated flavor. Perfect for those richer baked goods, a little bit is sure to go a long way. However, beware of imitators! A lot of “Mexican” vanilla out there is actually made of tonka beans, which have been ruled by the USDA as toxic. If it seems to cheap to be true, then chances are that it is.

As expected, the Madagascar vanilla is the classic, American pie vanilla. It’s the most widely recognized form, as I mentioned earlier, and it’s probably what you already had in your kitchen as well. A nice balance between the two other extracts, it could be perfectly content to play quietly in the background of the flavor profile for any baked good, but coaxed out into the spotlight, it can really shine as well. If you’re still uncertain about which vanilla to buy, this one is your best bet.

Now, I can hardly write about vanilla without mentioning the real thing: The beans! If you ask me, any type of vanilla bean is a good vanilla bean, regardless of origin. What you want to look for are thick, soft pods that are slightly moist to the touch and can bend easily. Since vanilla beans are always vastly more expensive than extract, often costing $7 – 10 per pod in my neck of the woods, I make sure not to waste an ounce of them. Scrape out the pods thoroughly, and then the spent shells can be steeped in custard, or stored in a jar of sugar to create vanilla sugar. If if beans aren’t in your budget but you still crave those lovely flecks and intense flavor, the next best thing (and one of my favorite ingredients ever) is vanilla paste.

No muss, no fuss, vanilla paste measures the same as extract, and can be used interchangeably in most recipes. I like to save the paste for places that you would really notice it, like a snow white frosting or delicate cheesecake. It’s still a bit pricey, but definitely more economical that buying full beans most of the time.

If you too are beginning to stock up on pantry staples for the holiday season, remember to pay attention to your vanilla this time around. It really can make the difference between a decent platter of cookies, and an excellent one.