You may be familiar with vanilla extract to add warm, floral flavor to cookies, brownies, cakes, and pies. Extract isn’t the only way to add vanilla flavor to your desserts, however, vanilla paste and vanilla beans are another great way to infuse your dishes with flavor. This guide walks you through all the ways you can use vanilla to your advantage.

History of Vanilla

Vanilla has been cultivated by humans since at least the 14th century. It is believed that Native Americans in modern-day Mexico were the first to plant, grow, harvest, and consume vanilla for culinary purposes. The colonial invasion of Central America by the Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries led to the introduction of vanilla in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today, Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla, followed by Indonesia, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea. 

Image Credit: bigfoot from Pixabay 

Varieties of Vanilla

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron due to the fact that it is labor intensive to cultivate. There are 4 main varieties of vanilla:

  • Bourbon: also known as Madagascar vanilla, this type is grown on islands in the Indian ocean. Despite common confusion, there is no bourbon whiskey found within in bourbon vanilla. 
  • Mexican: as the name implies, this variety is indigenous to Mexico. It is rarely found outside of its home country. 
  • West Indian: this variety is found throughout the Caribbean and South America.
  • Tahitian: this variety is among one of the most expensive types of vanilla on the market. Grown in French Polynesia, this species was introduced in the 19th century. 
Image Credit: Flickr user nlian ( CC BY 2.0 )

Cooking with Vanilla

Vanilla extract is an easy way to add lots of flavor to your baked goods, but what about vanilla paste and vanilla beans? Vanilla paste is a mixture of vanilla extract, sugar, vanilla seeds, and stabilizers. Use vanilla paste when you really want the flavor of vanilla to shine through, as it’s a bit more potent than vanilla extract. Try it in our Chai Spiced Cake for an extra oomph of flavor or in our Tres Leches Cake

Vanilla beans are the most expensive offering of the bunch. They aren’t a seed at all, but part of the fruit of the orchid plant they are harvested from. One vanilla bean contains about ½ a teaspoon of seeds and can be used in custards, ice creams, and other applications where you want to make your expensive spice count. Try adding some to our Eggnog Custard or to Creme Catalana. When shopping for vanilla beans be sure to look for ones sold in an airtight container that are plump and shiny. 

Feature Image: Flickr user kendiala ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )

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