All About Vanilla – From Bean to Extract to Paste

I think we can all agree that vanilla is the king of baking flavors.  It’s a staple ingredient found in every baker’s pantry.  Vanilla not only adds flavor, it enhances other flavors and rounds out the sweetness in desserts.

Vanilla Origins

Real vanilla is the fruit of an orchid native to Central America. The flower grows as a climbing vine and is now planted and grown commercially in tropical regions around the world. We can thank the Aztecs for discovering the allure of vanilla.  They put it to good use flavoring their “Xocolat” cocoa drink.  Can you imagine life without chocolate or vanilla?  All hail the Aztecs!

Vanilla With Orchid

Vanilla Basics

Ounce for ounce, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices to produce.  Each orchid flower must be pollinated by hand within 12 hours of blooming!   Once the vine has a chance to grow and the flowers bear fruit (the beans), good quality vanilla growers will check the beans daily for the perfect level of ripeness before hand harvesting.  The vanilla beans must then cure for 5 – 6 months to allow the flavors to develop.  In other words, vanilla production is a very long and labor-intensive process.

Yes, real vanilla is costly, but if vanilla is the dominant flavor in your recipe or if you adore the robust flavor of real vanilla, it’s worth it to splurge on a pure, premium vanilla. You won’t be sorry!


What’s the difference between vanilla extract, whole vanilla beans, and vanilla bean paste?

Pure Vanilla Extract

The majority of recipes we encounter call for using vanilla extract.  To make real vanilla extract, vanilla beans are steeped in a mixture of alcohol and water.   According to the U.S. FDA, in order for a product to be labeled as vanilla extract, it must contain at least 35% alcohol.

Vanilla extract is available in different concentrations, called “fold”.  Double strength, or double-fold (also called 2-fold) vanilla contains twice the amount of vanilla constituent per 8 ounces.  Single-fold vanilla is made with 5 beans per 8 ounces, double-fold is made with 10 beans per 8 ounces.  LorAnn offers two types of vanilla in 2-fold versions: Double Strength Madagascar Vanilla Extract and Double Strength Tahitian Vanilla Extract .  When using 2-fold versions, simply use half the amount of vanilla extract called for in a recipe (or use the full amount for added vanilla flavor!).

Artificial Vanilla Extract

Artificial vanilla extract is made with synthetic vanillin (vanillin is one of the aromatic compounds in real vanilla).  Since artificial vanilla can be mass-produced in a laboratory, the price is typically significantly less than pure vanilla extract and can be an economical choice for many bakers.  Clear vanilla extract is always made from artificial vanilla and is indispensable for bakers who want to keep their cakes and icings super white.

Whole Beans

Some gourmet recipes will call for using whole vanilla beans. What you’re really after is what’s inside the bean. To use a whole bean, slice lengthwise with a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds and the oily material. The seed pod itself is not used. When purchasing whole beans, look for plump, shiny beans that look well hydrated. Whole beans will dry-out over time and lose much of their flavor.


Vanilla Bean Paste

Vanilla bean paste is a handy alternative to using whole beans.  In the case of LorAnn’s vanilla bean paste, 1 Tbsp. vanilla paste is the equivalent of 1 whole bean or 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract.  With vanilla bean paste, the inside of the bean has been scraped out and suspended in a thick gel-like base.  Vanilla bean paste, like whole beans, can be used in place of vanilla extract in any recipe, but it’s especially useful in desserts where the appearance of the little black seed flecks are visible– such as in a custard, plain cheesecake, creme brulee recipe, or vanilla ice cream.


Vanilla Types

Like fine wine, there are different varietals of pure vanilla that are named for the location where the beans are grown:  Madagascar Bourbon, Mexican, Tahitian, and Indonesian. Each of these vanilla types have their own flavor profile as a result of the type of orchid cultivar as well as the particular “terroir” or environment in which the plant is produced:  climate, soil condition, geography, and even the neighboring plants will have an impact on the flavor.

Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla

This is the most popular premium vanilla and gets its name from Bourbon Island, now known as Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Sorry, this type of vanilla does not contain Bourbon liquor!  Madagascar vanilla is prized for its rich, smooth flavor and aroma.

Tahitian Vanilla

Known for its floral aroma and cherry-like flavor, Tahitian vanilla pairs especially well with fruit-based desserts.

Mexican Vanilla

Good quality, true Mexican vanilla has a similar flavor profile to Madagascar vanilla and has wide appeal.  Unfortunately, much of the “vanilla” that is purchased cheaply in Mexico is actually made not from vanilla beans, but from tonka beans. Tonka beans contain a substance called Coumarin, which is banned from human food use in the U.S. by the FDA.  Buyers beware!

For the Love of  Vanilla

Vanilla is unquestionably one of the world’s most beloved ingredients.  It’s creamy, rich taste complements and enhances the flavor of baked goods, ice creams, chocolate creations, beverages and so much more.  Outside of culinary applications, vanilla’s sweet, floral scent is a mainstay in fragrances, cosmetics, and personal care items from soaps to lotions.  Although the word vanilla can be used to mean “plain”, there is certainly nothing ordinary about vanilla.





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