In my view, the pastry world is divided between two different personality types: chocolate and vanilla, chocolate reflecting the heavy hitters and vanilla the more subtle and complex. I love both flavors but if I had to chose only one it would be simple: vanilla wins hands down, not only because I love its flavor but because it is one of those rare synergistic ingredients that enhances others. If chocolate is king, then vanilla is queen. And it is indeed the power behind the throne. Where, after all, would chocolate be without vanilla to round out its harsher, coarser characteristics. And in the domain of ice cream, vanilla reigns supreme as our number one flavor.

The term plain vanilla is an absurdity. There is nothing plain about magic. Perhaps the concept came about because vanilla sauces and creams are often used as a base for other more intense flavors; but there is nothing plain about it at all. In fact, when it stands on its own as vanilla ice cream or vanilla pound cake, it is the very essence of purity and haunting floral flavor notes that make one yearn for the impossible while feeling utterly fulfilled in the moment.  

Vanilla possesses an intriguing and powerful past going back to the Totonac Indians of the East Central Coastal area of Mexico. Taken as a conquering tribute by the Aztecs, where it was used in a drink called “Chocolatl” in the court of Montezuma, it was next acquired by the explorer Cortez (also written as Cortes) who introduced it to the royal court of Spain in around 1528. In the late 1500s they renamed it “Vainilla” meaning “Little Scabbard,” which the pods resemble. Vanilla was used uniquely for the chocolate drink in Spain for 80 years until 1602 when Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, suggested using it as a flavoring for other things such as sweet meats and candied fruits. In 1793 the vanilla vine was smuggled from Mexico to the Island of Reunion, then a French protectorate called Ile de Bourbon, hence the term Bourbon vanilla, referring to vanilla grown in this area.

There are some who categorize vanilla as a spice, and as such, it comes second only to saffron as the most expensive one in the world, because processing is so labor intensive. But to my mind, vanilla is in a category of it own—perhaps more a perfume or an essence than a spice.

Vanilla is the fruit of the planifolia (fragrans) orchid or the tahitensis orchid, the only two of 35,000 species of orchid that bears edible fruit (the pompon orchid is used primarily for perfumes and pharmaceuticals). The flower itself is totally devoid of scent, requiring lengthy processing and fermentation to achieve the exquisite aroma of the vanilla bean.

The vanilla orchid’s flowers open briefly only part of one day during a month-long flowering and require hand pollinating to produce fruit. (The only natural pollinator is the Melipona bee, unique to Mexico.)

Six to nine months after fruiting, the green pods are hand harvested and cured. The curing process begins either by brief soaking in hot water and then rolling in blankets to “sweat,” or, as is done in Mexico, by wrapping in blankets and then straw mats and heating the beans in an oven for 24 to 48 hours. In either case, the curing continues over a period of 5 to 6 months, during which the pods are sun dried each day and then returned to the sweating blankets at night. When fully cured, the pods are fermented, shrunk to one-fifth their original weight, to become characteristically dark brown and wrinkled and are referred to as vanilla beans. Incidentally, there is some confusion as to the use of the word vanilla bean because when the seeds (sometimes referred to as grains) contained in the pod are used in a product it is usually referred to as vanilla bean (ice cream or crème bruleée for ex.) even though only the seeds are used and not necessarily any of the pod. A vanilla bean is actually the entire pod containing the seeds.  The average vanilla bean contains 60,000 seeds. Madagascar beans graded “Prime Triple A’s,” however are left on the vine an extra week and grow to as long as 8 3/4-inches) containing 90,000 seeds. These represent a little less than 2% of the crop.

Vanilla grows best in areas 10 to 20 degrees north or south of the equator in a hot moist tropical climate with year round temperatures of 75 to 85˚ F/24 to 29˚C. Primary produces of vanilla are Indonesia, Mexico, Tonga, Tahiti and the Bourbon Islands including Madagascar which is said to be the finest from this area which produces about 55% of the world’s annual supply of 1700 tons.   

Vanilla beans vary enormously in quality. In generally, the best beans are thought to come from Tahiti, Madagascar and Mexico, though Indonesia also produces some beans of very high quality with slightly smoky notes. Gahara, which means “of royal descent,” is the most highly regarded Indonesian vanilla, coming from Bali in the Batubulan province, imported by Paris Gourmet.  

According to the late Chat Nielsen Jr. of Nielsen Massey, the Madagascar “Bourbon” has a full rich creamy flavor, Mexican vanilla slightly spice like clove or nutmeg, Reunion vanilla also possesses a slightly sweet spicy note, and Comores vanilla has a balsamic quality. His son, Craig Nielsen, says his personal favorite is Madagascar for its “deep rich complex, classic vanilla taste. Tahitian is floral and fragrant but the flavor profile is one dimensional.” His take on Mexican vanilla is that it is virtually indistinguishable from Bourbon when added to other ingredients.

Chef Aaron Isaacson, formerly of Mr. Recipe Premium Pure Vanilla Products, a graduate of the CIA whose interest and passion for vanilla led him to become a manufacturer, refers to the Madagascar beans as the refined royalty and the Indonesians as the indispensable truck drivers. He uses a blend of Indonesian and Madagascar from 5 different islands (Sulawesi, Java, Bali, Flores, and Madagascar) for his Vanilla Essence, a term which he has trademarked for his extract which cannot be called “pure vanilla extract” as it contains half the alcohol (18%) of what is categorized by the FDA as “pure vanilla extract.”

The second great divide in the pastry world, after that of chocolate versus vanilla, seems to be variety of vanilla: Tahitian versus Madagascar, with passionate devotees on either side. Oddly, some feel that Tahitian is stronger and others feel it is more aromatic but less strong in flavor in the finished product. All agree, however, that it is more floral in aroma. This is believed to be because it is high in the heliotropin component (piperonne). I find that it most successfully tempers and rounds the metallic quality of tropical fruit, particularly passion fruit. But each vanilla has its champions and now Mexican vanilla is also re-entering the arena. Lydia Jording, importer of Mexican vanilla, says “the reason it’s the best in the world is the way they cure the beans: they are oven dried and sun dried as opposed to the hot water method generally used elsewhere.”

Mexican vanilla fell into disfavor for a while because some unscrupulous producers were adding coumarin (an irreversible blood thinner) as a flavor enhancer. According to Zarella Martinez, successful efforts are now being made to produce organic first class vanilla in Papantla, the vanilla native region, by growers like Victor Vallejo and processors such as Heriberto Larios and Cesar Arellano. An organization has been formed (La Asociacion de Vainilleros de Papantla) and they have instituted rigid controls as to when the vanilla can be harvested. In addition only a few orchids are pollinated on each plant so that the beans that do grow are first rate. As of 2010, virtually all Mexican vanilla imported into the USA is coumarin free.

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Vanilla has been available as an extract only in the last 100 years. To produce an extract, the chopped and shredded beans are soaked in a recirculating alcohol and water solution to extract their flavor. Temperatures vary from 60 to 130°F/16 to 54˚C, but better manufacturers use cool distillation as it results in the best flavor and also a longer time period of up to 5 weeks as opposed to warm temperature and an extraction of only 48 hours. After extraction, some of the alcohol and water solvent is removed if it is being concentrated and the remaining extract is adjusted for flavor strength. (Vanilla can also be extracted using other solvents such as carbon dioxide, commonly used in Europe but not accepted here by the FDA.)

Vanilla extract is available in different concentrations referred to as “folds.”
The term “fold” refers to the strength of the vanilla extract, not the flavor.  The FDA defines single strength (one-fold) as being made from 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans (about 100 beans), which contain less than 25% moisture, per gallon of liquid solvent.  Specialty producers claim that their single strength is 10% stronger than most supermarket brands. Double strength (2 fold) uses two times the amount of vanilla bean per gallon of liquid solvent, triple strength 3 times, quadruple strength is 4 times after which it becomes supersaturated. Thirty folds is the highest concentration produced. In order to get to 10 fold concentration, 10 gallons of a 1 fold vanilla are put into a still and under pressure and vacuum the water and alcohol is drawn off, and it is reduced to 1 gallon of 10 fold. This concentration process also drives off flavor components so if reconstituted to 10 gallons it would not be the same. It is used in industry for convenience when working with large quantities of product.
La Cuisine, in Alexandria Virginia, offers a highly aromatic 8 fold Madagascar extract for which the beans have been flash frozen before extraction presumably to maintain freshness and quality.

According to the FDA, vanilla labeled “pure vanilla extract” must contain at least 35% alcohol. (This is not to say that vanilla extracted in mediums other than alcohol is less “pure,” and may in fact be superior!)  It may also contain vanilla seeds and ground pods. Sugar, dextrose and cornsyrup, coloring and preservatives are permissible but must be listed. According to Patricia Rain, in her “Vanilla Cookbook”, Celestial Arts Berkeley, Ca. 1986, manufacturers may use 5% to as much as 40% sugar to speed up the aging or mellowing process. Sugar is also used to prevent a muddy color, but if caramelized sugar is used it will produce a dark, often muddy color.  


Pure Vanilla Extract: Liquid vanilla extract is designated as a flavoring by the FDA when it contains less than 35% alcohol. You can have a pure vanilla flavoring that is less but it is not designated as an extract.
    Some manufacturers such as Euro Vanille refer to their product as “Pure Vanilla Extract” though they cannot technically have the FDA designation since it contains no alcohol. In this case, the vanilla is extracted either in alcohol or in carbon dioxide and this medium is then replaced by a glycerin medium, a more neutral propylene glycol medium, or an invert sugar. These varieties of vanilla are used in industry or by individuals who desire the flavor of natural vanilla without using the whole bean or an alcohol solvent. Because glycerin is a vegetable oil derivative, with a higher evaporation point, it dissipates less during baking than a vanilla in an alcohol base. I find that glycerin, when tasted alone has a distinctly bitter taste though in minute quantities and added to other ingredients this may not be perceptible. Euro Vanille and Searome both use inverted sugar to eliminate any bitter aftertaste.

Vanilla Bean Paste This excellent product contains vanilla seeds combined with vanilla extract, natural gum thickeners, and a small amount of sugar, varying by manufacturer. Most can be used in equal volume to replace vanilla extract, but it is best to check the label for suggested amounts.


The now ubiquitous vanilla paste usually contains natural vegetable gum such as carogene for viscosity so it is thickened but still fluid enough to pour. The paste also may contain either the seeds and/or the pod, and sometimes a small amount of vanilla extract in alcohol or sugar syrup.
     Paris Gourmet imports a Gahara (Indonesian) vanilla paste made from the entire bean in an alcohol, water and emulsifier medium.  This is offered as a more economical approach as the beans used are not of the same quality, resulting in less purity and flavor depth.  Nielsen Massey and Mr. Recipe, however, use the same quality beans in his paste but not the pod because it sometimes will add bitterness.  Isaacson claims that chefs prefer the paste or the essence to extract and produces extract for the consumer only because recipes call for that product.

Vanilla Bean Seeds The vanilla bean seeds add a subtle earthy depth of flavor and unique sweet quality, but the bean alone cannot offer the full depth of flavor.
    The extract, though easier to use, lacks the sweet roundness and in excess may even impart a bitter edge, hence the popularity of the vanilla pastes which offer a balance of complexity, richness and fullness of flavor. Vanilla paste, however, is not as strong as extract because it is not full strength or full extraction.  It is, therefore, somewhat of a compromise.  The ideal flavor profile would be a combination of extract and seeds, and second to that paste, and seeds.

Vanilla Bean Powder Pure vanilla is also marketed in the form of a powdered bean, and also powdered with sugar. Though most of the flavor resides in the seeds, when the entire pod is used the resulting powder is coarser than the seeds alone and the flavor less subtle and delicate, delivering far more flavor impact but less depth of flavor than extract. Euro Vanille markets a powder that is 100% vanilla, using the bean and the seeds.  Nielsen Massey’s vanilla powder has been encapsulated onto a maltodextrin (modified cornstarch) as opposed to the more usual dextrose base, which is much sweeter. The FDA allows pure vanilla powder to contain lactose, food starch, dried corn syrup, acacia, and an anticaking ingredients.

TO SUM IT UP The major advantages of vanilla paste, vanilla bean seeds and vanilla powder over extract is that more can be used without resulting in bitterness, and that the flavor does not dissipate during cooking or baking.  The major advantage of extract is richness and intensity of flavor and ease of disbursement in a liquid medium.
    Aaron Isaacson advises using paste in recipes that are not subjected to high heat, in conjunction with extra seeds to give the extra flavor boost that you would not have with just the bean alone. He says that the extra sugar in the paste also brings out more vanilla flavor, making it more complex, richer, more mellow and rounded. He advises using the essence or extract in combination with the bean for long baking such as cakes and crème brulée, because it is richer and more full bodied. Though some of it dissipates, there is still an uderlying flavor carried by the alcohol.

Keeping in mind that taste here is highly subjective and particularly dependent on freshness and quality of the product, the suggested exchanges are:

1 teaspoon of vanilla powder = 1 teaspoon of extract = 1 teaspoon paste
(When using Tahitian, I use a 1-inch piece of bean to = 1 teaspoon extract.)
2-inches of bean=1 teaspoon of extract; 1 whole bean = 1 tablespoon extract or paste

Incidentally, most vanilla products are designated as kosher (the designation appearing on the packaging).

Artificial Vanilla
There are thought to be over 250 organic flavor components in every high-quality vanilla bean and only one in artificial vanilla: vanillin. This is commonly produced using wood pulp (which is why wines aged in oak barrels often have a noticeable vanillin flavor component)  


A vanilla bean should be dark brown, plump, glossy or oily, and flexible. It’s surface can display white vanillin crystals. If you look very carefully, you may even find a distinctive mark on a vanilla bean. Some growers actually brand each bean to prevent theft during processing! The average bean measures 5 to 6 inches in length, but some measure almost 8-3/4 inches in length, depending on variety. Those that are the ripest will tend to split sharply along their length.
    Sometimes you will notice a white substance coating the vanilla beans. This is usually not mold, it is most probably flavorful natural vanillin crystals which migrate to the surface. Some disreputable producers harvest this vanillin for other purposes, lowering the quality of the bean.  According to Chris Broberg, beans still containing all their vanillin smell sweeter. He recommends always getting an analysis. To determine whether the white substance is mold or vanillin, simply touch your finger to the bean. If it is mold it will not disappear but if it is vanillin crystals, after a few seconds they will vanish. 

Taste: The best way to taste and compare vanilla is in bottled water or club soda sweetened with a simple syrup made by bringing 3/4 cup water and 1-1/2 cups sugar almost to a boil, stirring constantly until dissolved, held at that temperature for a few minutes stirring, then cooled to room temperature. Use about 1 quart of club soda to 6-1/2 tablespoons simple syrup to 1 tablespoon of vanilla.  If the vanilla is of a higher concentration or fold, use proportionately less .
    For the vanilla bean, use 1 bean per cup of water/syrup mixture.  Split the bean down the center and cut it into 1/8 to 1/4-inch pieces.  Steep for about 2 hours.
A plain butter cookie is also an excellent way to assess the baking qualities of vanilla.

Storage: Vanilla extract or paste is thought to improve on age, developing nuances, for perhaps as long as 5 years and even longer if stored under ideal conditions. If stored at too cool a temperature flavoring material may precipitate out requiring shaking before use. The ideal temperature for both extract, paste, and beans is 70 to 80°F/21 to 17˚C at low humidity, and not exposed to light. A plastic bottle or for the beans, a freezer weight airtight bag is preferable to glass which is porous. Beans stored in this manner will keep their freshness for up to 6 months. If vacuum packed they will stay fresh even longer. According to manufacturers, chilling or freezing destroys some of the esthers and flavor components. 

When using any variety of vanilla bean in a sweet recipe I prefer to scrape the seeds into the sugar and process the two together to distribute them evenly. This is particularly important with Tahitian beans which are plumper than the others and the seeds far more pulpy.  

It is recommended, whenever possible, to add the vanilla at the end of the recipe, because heating changes the entire chemical nature of vanilla.  

Shirley Corriher, author of CookWise, when asked if there is a Southern traditional use for vanilla replied unhesitatingly: Yes; we put vanilla in everything sweet.  

There is a long standing tradition of vanilla used in sweet desserts however there is also a trend thought to have been started during the Nouvelle Cuisine era by Alain Senderens, in his famous lobster with vanilla nage, of using vanilla in savory food as it was originally employed centuries ago in Mexico. Jean Georges Vongerichten, of Jean George, uses vanilla in his savory cooking and refers to it as a spice.  He finds that it “softens the dish and goes well with everything”

Zarella Martinez, formerly of Zarella’s, has perfected a Veracruzian chicken dish called “Pollo en Chile Seco, Vanilla and Orange,” and says “the vanilla bean rounds out the flavor and gives it dimension.”

Christian Delouvrier, of Lespinasse, finds that vanilla makes the meat or fish sweeter. One of his favorite uses is with lemon cured in salt in a sauce for foie gras.

In industry, vanilla is used in soft drinks, Coca Cola being one of the major importers of Mexican vanilla. It is also used in perfumes, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and tobacco. Chris Broberg, formerly of Petrossian, reports having enjoyed an inexpensive cigar that had been stored with vanilla beans, which imparted a sweet quality, particularly in the aroma.

Jonathan Zearfoss, culinary professor at the CIA, in a class on aphrodisiacs, offered a recipe for vanilla bean infused mineral oil to be used as a perfume.

In Mexico, whimsical vanilla bean sculptures in the shape of roses, frogs, etc. are used as room deodorizers and a vanilla bean can even be found underneath the seat of taxi cabs. Note, a drop of vanilla applied to a light bulb before turning on the light also works well as a room deodorizer.

How to Use Left Over Pods: Vanilla beans still have lots of flavor even after the seeds have been removed. Be sure to rinse the bean if it has been used to flavor another liquid and dry it in a low oven or with the heat of the oven's pilot light.
      The most time-honored use for left over vanilla pods is to make vanilla sugar by burying the dried pods in the sugar. Pastry Chef Jean Philippe Maury formerly of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, recommends substituting this sugar for 8 percent of the weight of the sugar used in a recipe. Jacque Pfeiffer uses equal parts vanilla bean and powdered sugar to pulverize into a powder. Aaron Isaacson pulverizes the pod with sugar and triple sifts it to get rid of any extraneous matter that would cause bitterness. He uses this to replace as much as 30 percent of the sugar in cakes. He feels it is imperative to use vanilla sugar in cookies as with other forms of vanilla the flavor will to some to some degree bake out, however also adds some extract or essence for the additional flavor profile.
       For years I have added some of my spent vanilla beans to my baking countertop’s vanilla extract bottle, a precursor to the now ubiquitous vanilla pastes. I always keep the beans covered with extract to avoid molding. I also have a 8 quart rising container filled with sugar in which I have several dozen spent pods imparting their vanilla fragrance.  


Chocolate has had its day in the sun and is clearly here to stay, but now there seems to be a gradually swelling trend toward vanilla awareness, exemplified by the variety of the bean used often appearing on dessert menus.  Vanilla, traditionally a supporting player, is well on its way to stealing the show, possibly leaving chocolate in the cocoa dust.

Jean Francois Bonnet, of Tumbador, prefers Madagascar, in particular the Euro Vanille, because he finds Tahitian too strong but agrees that it works well with assertive tropical flavors such as passion.  

Chris Broberg, formerly of Petrossian, prefers Mexican, saying it is not as cloying as Tahitian, nor slightly fermented like Madagascar, nor smoky like Indonesian. He infuses it in syrups to flavor fruit and jams.

Phillips Conticini, of Petrossian, likes the texture of Madagascar grains though he appreciates the flavor of Tahitian as well.  

Claudia Fleming, formerly of Grammercy Tavern, says we overlook this most precious of essences. She feels that vanilla has been neglected and pushed aside because of the trendy things being done and would like to resurrect it.  She is serving a baked warm chocolate chiboust, with vanilla ice cream, using the bean and extract which boosts the flavor, with a vanilla bourbon sauce. 

Johnnie Iuzzini, TV celebrity chef and formerly of Restaurant Daniel, finds Madagascar richer and sweeter than Tahitian which he feels is more aromatic but less flavorful. He says that vanilla can stand on its own but complements and rounds out a lot of desserts—things you want to keep simple yet add a little flavor. He uses vanilla with fresh fruits such as a fruit soup with melon and a little elderflower water, or in a fresh cream to give it a ripe non-processed flavor. He likes vanilla in invert sugar from Sevarome as it incorporates easily into other things but employs vanilla bean ground with sugar in tarts, sifted to take out any chunks.

Emily Lucetti, of Farralon, uses Tahitian in ice cream and panaccota where it is the main flavor and Madagascar (due to the greater expense of the Tahitian) in applications where it is more masks by other flavors. She says it used to be an accent flavor and now is a primary flavor and has emerged in its own right.

Nancy Oakes, chef/owner of Boulevard, adds vanilla to her brining liquid for meat.

Francois Payard, of Payard, says that vanilla is a very interesting product that can be adapted to a lot of different desserts and the flavor changes depending on what you put it with.

Andrew Schotts, of Ghiradelli Chocolate, has a favorite recipe for sea bass with veal stock and vanilla.

Jean George Vongerichten, of Jean George, prefers Mexican partially because he feels it is fresher and therefore more flavorful. He uses it in many of his savory recipes.