Pantry 101: Vanilla extract vs. vanilla beans

The busiest baking season of the year is here, so there’s no better time to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of this commonly called-for ingredient.

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Vanilla extract vs vanilla beans
Illustration, Casie Wilson.

With its combination of sweet, creamy and sometimes spicy notes, vanilla is a popular flavour-enhancing ingredient in baking. Grown from the vanilla orchid, the beans are harvested before fully ripening, and are slowly fermented to concentrate the flavour. Vanillin, crystals formed during this process, are the most prominent component of vanilla, giving it its distinct aroma. Formed in low quantities during the fermentation process, natural vanillin is a high-price ingredient—second only to saffron; as a result, a synthetic form of vanillin has been developed and is often found in stores today in the form of artificial vanilla extract.

If you’ve ever wondered why some recipes call for vanilla extract while others call for vanilla beans, read on to find out more.

Vanilla extract
The more common and cost-effective of the two is natural vanilla extract. This is a liquid solution that contains vanillin, ethyl alcohol and water and is made by macerating vanilla beans in the solution to infuse flavour. Keep in mind that there is a difference between vanilla extract and artificial vanilla extract: natural vanilla extract is the more expensive of the two as it is derived from the aromatic plant, while artificial vanilla extract is derived from the pulp waste, making it more affordable (it can have a strong and slightly bitter aftertaste, so look for natural extracts whenever possible).

Why we love it:
This budget-friendly solution is perfect for adding to cookies and cakes where the vanilla is more subtle and used to enhance overall flavour.

Try it in:
Small-batch chocolate chip cookies
Vanilla icebox sugar cookies

 

Vanilla beans
With their slow production process, vanilla beans are more expensive, but they also have a more intense vanilla flavour. The beans are the dark brown pods filled with thousands of little seeds of vanilla; these are the black specks you may find in high-quality vanilla ice cream. Save the beans for more vanilla-forward dishes where the flavour is meant to shine (try it in homemade eggnog), such as puddings, custards and ice creams.

Why we love them:
Vanilla beans are the most pure form of vanilla and the small seeds are loaded with flavour and add visual interest to dishes. Plus, once you’ve scraped out the seeds, you can use the pod for infusing sugar or spirits.

Try it in:
Vanilla bean syrup
Roasted vanilla pears

 

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