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.

60 thoughts on “Not Just “Plain Vanilla”

  1. Oh the new look of your site is very nice !
    I like the vanilla and the tonka, it’s two ingrédients that I like and I’m addictive !
    Your pictures it’s very nice, waouw, what talent ! :)

  2. Thanks for the tips! I believe the brand of vanilla paste you’re using is the one I have for the Madagascar vanilla extract.

    I’m not gonna throw away my vanilla pod again! I will make them into vanilla sugar, thanks for the tip!

  3. Vanilla is by far my favorite dominant flavor and I use a ton of it too. I usually buy organic madagascar vanilla at Whole Foods, but when I use beans, I can get 2 for $6 there as well. I was pretty impressed, I don’t feel as bad for buying them. =)

  4. I love vanilla, but then, what baker doesn’t.
    For the beans you should check out Penzeys They have one of the most reasonable prices on vanilla beans that I’ve seen and they are a trustworthy source. I’ve seen lower on and the like, but since I’m not familiar with the companies I’m reluctant to drop that much cash. Do you have a supplier that you prefer and trust?

  5. I suddenly feel festive! How did that happen? ;)

    I adore the vanilla bean paste, too. For me it’s a much fuller flavour than extract. I keep thinking that I should order some beans from ebay and make my own extract since I do use loads of it…

  6. vanilla is one of my favorite flavors, even though that may make me a simpleton. a good vanilla does make a difference in baking, interesting to read about the different types you have encountered!

  7. Love your seasonal banner!
    Would you believe it if I said that the Netherlands is an imitation vanilla state? Baking is not so big here and in the supermarket you can either buy vanilla sugar (artificially flavoured or a combo of artificial and natural) or vanilla pods. To get something like vanilla paste or ground vanilla beans I have to search and search…sigh… So I mostly use beans, don’t know which ones though because it’s usually not stated.

  8. What a nice informative posting on vanilla.Here in Israel we can easily find beans and good quality extract in health food shops or specialized food shops, supermarkets usually only carry the synthetic awful versions.

    The new look of your site looks nice:)

  9. Thanks for the great info, Hannah! I’ve yet to try Mexican vanilla. But I feel like you do about the beans–any true vanilla is good in my books!

    Nice new banner, too :)

  10. My mom used to buy Mexican vanilla in bulk when she ran her catering company. It was amazing in richer cakes and puddings and things like that. You did a lovely overview of the various kinds of vanillas out there!

  11. Excellent information. Thank you for sharing!

    I recently discovered (via another blog or message board – can’t remember which) that you can buy vanilla beans on ebay. I checked it out, placed an order and received them promptly. I bought 1/4 lb of Madagascar beans for 17.04 including shipping and they threw in 10 free Tahitian beans. I haven’t counted how many constitute 1/4, but it looks like it could easily be 20 or 30. I bought them for a number of reasons, one of which is making homemade coffee liqueur and Irish Cream for Christmas presents. So the vanilla isn’t *just* for baking, ;)

  12. This is really helpful – thanks. Do you have a Costco near you? I just bought something like 10 beans for about $15 or maybe even less. I stocked up!

  13. I absolutely LOVE the new blog layout! Great choice!

    This is great info about vanilla! I’ve always wanted to try Tahitian, and now I know what to expect!

    My mom got me great vanilla beans while she was in Mexico (she asked me what I wanted her to bring back for me and I said “Vanilla beans!!”) and they are great! I just have to roll them (like you would do to a lemon to release it’s juices) so that I can get the most out of them because they are a little stiff – it’s a great trick. Plus they were a fraction of the cost here in the States!

  14. like so many other commenters, i also SWEAR BY vanilla paste… the taste is incredible, and as you said, it’s easily interchangeable and looks so gorgeous to boot!

  15. This is great! You should definately try to make your own vanilla extract, that is never ending! Add a sliced vanilla pod in some vodka or other alcohol! You will be amazed.

  16. Good coverage of the different flavors. Its too bad most people don’t have the opportunity. I only tasted bourbon and tahitian beans side by side a few months back and was floored by the difference.

    On a random side note, I’m not affiliated with these guys, but a very happy customer:

    I bought a bunch of high quality vanilla beans for much cheaper than you can get at the grocery store. Well worth a look. I’ve also got a jar of vanilla extract in the works since its now cheaper to make my own using these beans rather than buying it premade. I hope it helps!

  17. I was actually just wondering about these different vanilla flavors when looking through a baking catalog this weekend. Thanks for the summaries of all of them.

    Also, where do you get vanilla in bulk?? I spend so much on the stuff, it goes like crazy.

  18. how interesting! i honestly never even knew there were different types of vanilla. i wonder what type my ‘kroger brand pure vanilla’ is haha… thanks for the review!

  19. Great post! I am a big fan of vanilla paste too. Trader Joe’s sells it for less than $3 a jar but I haven’t seen it where I live for a while. I once received a gift of Mexican Vanilla from a friend who went there and I have to say it tastes terrible! I wonder if it was in fact, Tonka beans?

    While I have to agree with you that using 100% pure vanilla is important, it’s also important try different brands of vanilla. Some are definitely better than others. Also, be sure to check the label – some of the 100% pure vanilla extracts add sugar or high fructose corn syrup to their extracts (I’m not sure how they get away with that exactly).

  20. Love the new look! I was shocked and wasn’t sure I clicked the right bookmark. Vanilla has to be my extract to bake with, so versatile. I’d love to sample these “fancier” verities.

  21. If you love the paste, you can get a 32oz bottle on Ebay for $30 – the same paste you show above! Search for “Madagascar Vanilla Paste” – the seller is Chefcube, and I’ve had great service from them, and it keeps me in vanila for awhile!

  22. When I went to Tahiti I visited a vanilla bean farm. It takes forever to cultivate. It does have a floral and more subtle, less potent vanilla flavor. I am going to look for the paste. That sounds sooo good.

  23. FYI, if you ever go to Mexico for a vacation or anything, stock up on vanilla. It lasts forever and is damn cheap.

    It’s not the best quality (it’s much better than any imitation vanilla), but Mexico’s the closest to most Americans, and you can buy bottles and bottles of the stuff.

  24. Thanks for the info. With reards to vanilla bean paste I recently read that though the paste has bean specks the specks have no real flavor. The specks are for show not flavor as they have been recycled.

    I have both Mexican & Madagascar extracts as well as vanilla paste. I do think I prefer the bolder taste of the Mexican but vanilla is my fave flavor. I usually use the paste for desserts that showcase the lovely specks!

  25. Hey, Hannah! This post is right up my alley – I like to tell myself I’m a great big vanillafficianado and really love to experience the variances in different types of vanilla. Your writeup was great, and I can almost taste each one! Recently I tried a vanilla extract from Papa New Guinea… I think it might have been by Frontier. Have you seen it? It was certainly pleasant – sweet and floral, but heavy on the top notes. It’s a kind of flavor one would smell more than taste. I’ve also got to give a shout out to the raw vanilla powder I got at Whole Foods. (Not sure of the brand.) It’ll give ya the same fun speckles as vanilla paste, but it won’t make uncooked dishes taste like alcohol.

    Great new look, by the way!

  26. Love your new look! This is such a great post. I have switched from Bourbon vanilla to Mexican because I can get great Mexican vanilla here in Texas. I agree that a great vanilla makes all the difference in a recipe.

  27. Great post!

    I use tahitian as perfume, on the rare occasions I feel a need to use perfume. I cracked up when I read that you were tempted to do the same, because I’d thought I’d been the only one who did this.

  28. This year I made my own extract and I’m giving them away in that very same jar! I’ve been using it this last month and I love it. I made one with vodka and one with whiskey.
    I love the bean paste! One of my favorite ingredients.

  29. i love the look of the blog now! its so festive! :) i love vanilla.. my sister used to live in Mexico and got us hooked on it.. from now on, any time i hear about anyone going to mexico- they get a few bucks and orders to buy vanilla! YUMMMY!! there is NOTHING like the full flavor of Mexican Vanilla..

  30. Your new layout is so pretty- I love it!

    I think vanilla is often overlooked as an awesome flavor and it makes me sad :( I’m really interested in trying some of these other types of vanilla now because it’s one of my favorite flavors.

  31. Mmmm lovely vanilla…. That Madagascar Bourbon vanilla paste is one of my favourites – when there are no vanilla beans in the house to use!

  32. I had no idea about the paste, that’s pretty useful. And thank you, I also had no familiarity with the vanilla varieties. I’ve just run out of the stuff myself, which is kind of an emergency, and now I know to look for Madagascar!

  33. I found some good deals on vanilla beans on a few months ago, I bought a large amount of Madagascar beans (approx. 50) and a small amount of Tahitian (approx. 15). I don’t believe I spent over $55. I have been using them to make my own vanilla extract at home. I split 5 or 6 Madagascar beans and 2 Tahitians, then cut them in to 2-3 inch pieces. I put the pieces in a pint sized canning jar, and fill it with 80 proof vodka. Shake it once a day for a week and then once a week until you reach about 2 months. Let me tell you I made some custard for a coconut cream pie, and tried it before adding any other flavors – it was sublime! And it’s much cheaper than the $7 an oz. extract costs here in NY.

  34. I’ve never known there is mexican vanilla, this is something new for me. I’ve only ever tried madagascar, and I should say they are best in bean form. And I can relate on the vanilla sugar part, I totally do that. Thank you for an informative post.

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