This post was surprisingly difficult to write (as you might have noticed from my one-week hiatus). The reason being that every time I tried to write about the different types of vanilla products used in baking, I felt like such a sham saying that if you want “true” vanilla flavour, you need to use very expensive pods. Truth be told, my choice of vanilla is more often dictated by my wallet than by what the recipe calls for.
So I rewrote this post with every type of budget in mind. Essentially, we’ll be going through the more common forms of vanilla, starting with the most expensive and working our way down towards the more affordable stuff.
Vanilla beans or pods are the shriveled-up fruit of an orchid plant that’s very difficult to cultivate, hence the high price tag. But they’re the real McCoy when it comes to vanilla. In most cases, you’d split a bean right down the middle, and using the back of your knife, scrape out the black, gooey seeds. It’s the seeds that give you the truest vanilla flavour. (There, I said it. Cringed inwardly though.)
Given the high price point, vanilla beans shouldn’t be used in every recipe (unless your last name is Rockefeller.) You should have some in store though, locked away in a high-security vault. Bring them out when vanilla is a principal flavour in a recipe and you really want to impress. Some recipes I can think of that call for a strong vanilla flavour would be creme brulee and vanilla ice cream.
And when you do break out your precious store of vanilla beans in a fit of extravagance, do not throw away them away after removing the seeds! Just stick the scraped-out pod in some sugar and twenty-four hours later – voilà! – you have vanilla sugar.
Next step down the price ladder are extracts. They’re the product of steeping vanilla in alcohol to extract (hence the name) the vanilla flavours.
I would say vanilla extracts are the “Goldilocks” vanilla product. Although you’re still going to have to foot a substantial amount for a bottle, they’re not horrendously expensive like vanilla beans. And you’re still getting real vanilla flavour, unlike the cheap imitation stuff that we’ll get to soon.
So who should get them? Anyone who’s getting more serious about their baking. Get yourself as big a bottle as possible for better value. Anyway, extracts last pretty much forever, and you will use them in almost all your baking.
VANILLA ESSENCES AND IMITATION VANILLA FLAVOURING
Okay, this is where things get a little Matrix-y. Technically, essences and flavourings are not real vanilla. They’re made from chemicals harvested from wood (yes, wood), which is why they’re so much cheaper than extracts. Slightly better versions might contain a mixture of these chemicals and extracts.
But let’s be honest here: would you be able to tell whether that 1 teaspoon of vanilla I used in my cake was real? Vanilla essences/flavourings will work perfectly well in recipes where vanilla is a complementing flavour (i.e., very little is called for).
And it’s my personal opinion that we’ve been brought up so much on imitation vanilla that we’ve come to associate that as the true vanilla flavour. As a financially-challenged student, I used vanilla essences all the time. And really, no one could tell. (Heck, I think no one noticed when I switched to extracts too.)
So what’s the moral of the story? There are two things you need to consider when you decide which form of vanilla to get: (1) your budget, and (2) the demands of the recipe. You shouldn’t be wasting a vanilla bean on a run-of-the-mill muffin, just as you shouldn’t be attempting to make vanilla ice cream with the imitation stuff.