Everything you always wanted to know about vanilla

Vanilla as an adjective is a synonym for boring, but as a flavoring extract it is anything but blah. Why the term ‘vanilla’ took on such a connotation is an interesting story in itself, but we’re here to talk about the actual product, not its colloquial use. Over at Eater, Jamie Feldmar takes a deep dive into vanilla, explaining what it is and how to use its various forms.

By now, most of us probably understand that vanilla is the fruit of a tropical orchid, but did you know there are at least three distinct varieties? The most common is Mexican vanilla, vanilla planifolia; but others you might encounter include vanilla pompona, found in the West Indies, Central America, and South America; and vanilla tahitensis, local to French Polynesia and New Guinea.

Vanilla is sold in three forms: as whole vanilla pods or beans, as an extract, and as a paste. The article explains what to look for when buying vanilla beans, and also explains how to substitute the beans for extract. They are interchangeable in most recipes, and one vanilla bean is equivalent to one tablespoon of extract. According to Shauna Sever, vanilla paste is  the best of both worlds — huge flavor from the pod, but the convenience of an extract.” Vanilla paste is becoming easier to find, both in retail stores and online.

The cost of vanilla continues to climb, as demand fights against limited supply, which has been reduced by runs of bad weather and natural disasters. On my foray into a Williams-Sonoma store last week, I gasped at the price of an 8 oz. (235 ml) bottle – it was $55 USD. I am using up the last of the vanilla that I made using beans that a friend picked up during his vacation a couple of years ago. I am steeling myself for the purchase I will have to make once my supply is gone. Sources as revered as Cook’s Illustrated say that imitation extract is fine, but I have always preferred to use the real deal. With prices like these, however, my reluctance may be fading.

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  • readingtragic  on  July 25, 2021

    I recently bought a bottle of the most beautiful quality vanilla here in Australia for A$125 (US$92) for 100ml – consider yourself lucky…
    I now have several grades of vanilla in my pantry and think very carefully about what I’m making/who I’m making for, and whether the recipe needs vanilla at all eg. in chocolate cake

  • Larkspur  on  July 25, 2021

    I found some beans I bought before the prices went up so high and made my own. I use vodka and top it off—the directions I have say I can do this for 5-7 years.

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