Baking & Desserts

Irresistible vanilla: How to cook with the many forms of vanilla

Author: Canadian Living

Baking & Desserts

Irresistible vanilla: How to cook with the many forms of vanilla

One of the oldest and most aromatic flavourings, vanilla is anything but plain. It can be intoxicatingly fragrant yet at times impart a sweet, rich, mellow flavour.

Vanilla: What it is
A vanilla bean is the seedpod of the climbing orchid vanilla planifolia, and its flavour comes from the seeds. Though menus often play up vanilla from Tahiti or Madagascar, vanilla’s roots lie in Mexico, where its habitat stretched along the edge of forests from Mexico to Venezuela. Vanilla was prized by the Aztecs who used it to flavour their famous drink xocolatl – cocoa beans, honey and vanilla. However, it was the much-chronicled conquistador Hernando Cortez who wooed Europeans with vanilla’s seductive powers.

Mexico held the monopoly on vanilla until the mid-19th century, when the French hand-pollinated beans from propagated cuttings on the Bourbon Islands off the coast of Africa. The flowers develop into long, thin odourless and tasteless green beans. These are picked while still unripe, plunged into hot water, dried in the sun and wrapped in blankets to “sweat” at night for up to six months. Then the beans mature for up to two years into the fragrant, dark and leathery beans we know and love.

Vanilla: Buying and storing
Vanilla beans are commonly sold in small tubes in fine food stores. Look for moist, plump beans with a bit of a sheen. (Don’t waste money on dried, shrivelled twigs.) Stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, beans keep for up to one year.

Using vanilla
Vanilla beans are easy to use. Split lengthwise and scrape out seeds (one whole vanilla bean equals 2 to 3 tsp 10 to 15 mL vanilla extract). Add seeds and pod to custards, syrups and liquor to steep.

Pure vanilla extract is the most popular way that vanilla is used. Made by percolating vanilla beans with ethyl alcohol and water, pure vanilla extract must contain at least 35 per cent alcohol (so don’t add to hot liquids because the alcohol evaporates, taking some flavour). Most companies use a blend of beans to create their signature flavour. However, single region vanilla extracts with unique flavours are available in specialty stores. Vanilla will keep indefinitely in a cool, dark place. Refrigeration is not recommended.

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Artificial (imitation) vanilla extract is made from synthetic substances. Lacking vanilla’s delicacy, it is stronger and contains less alcohol than pure vanilla. Though the imitation may lend a bitter accent to custards, it can take the heat and is often preferable for baked goods.

Vanilla flavouring (or premium artificial vanilla extract) is a blend of pure vanilla extract and synthetic substances. It has excellent flavour at a fraction of the price (and alcohol) of pure vanilla.

Vanilla bean paste is a concentrated extract that contains the black specks of a real vanilla bean, sugar and thickeners. Substitute in equal amounts for vanilla extract in custards and creams. Vanilla paste is available in fine food stores and from online retailers for a fraction of the price of the same number of whole beans.

Ground vanilla beans make a fine, dark powder that is twice as strong as extract, so use only half the amount called for. Because there is no alcohol, ground vanilla keeps its flavour during high heat, making it excellent for baking. It is available at fine food stores and from online retailers.

Vanilla powder is a fine, off-white powder made from sugars or starch sprayed or laced with vanilla. Because it is alcohol-free, it can be added to warm liquids and will not evaporate with high heat. Substitute in equal amounts for vanilla extract in baked goods. Look for it in fine food stores or from online retailers.

Vanilla sugar is a fine flavoured sugar available with both natural and imitation flavouring. Check the ingredients to know what you’re getting. Because it dissolves easily, it is good for beverages and whipped cream. It’s available at most grocery stores.

Recipe image featured above: Dried Fruit Compote in Vanilla Syrup >>

Vanilla: A world of flavour
Vanilla beans - like chocolate, coffee and wine - are influenced by the climate and soil in which they’re grown. Here are the most common varieties.

Madagascar-Bourbon vanilla: Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla in the world, and bourbon vanilla refers to beans from the Bourbon Islands (Comoros, Madagascar, Réunion and Seychelle), where the French first planted vines. These are the thinnest beans and have a sweet, rich, mellow flavour that combines well with rich foods, such as cream and chocolate.

Mexican vanilla: Once the world leader, today Mexico produces only about 10 per cent of the world’s vanilla supply. However, these thick, dark beans are highly prized for their smooth, creamy, cinnamon-spice notes, which perfectly accent savoury, spicy dishes.

Tahitian vanilla: A different genus of vanilla orchid (vanilla tahitensis), Tahitian vanilla is a mutation of the planifolia stock. It is a fat bean with fewer seeds and less natural vanillin than Bourbon and Mexican vanilla. Known for its fruity and floral, cherry-anise flavours, it brings out the best in yogurt- and fruit-based desserts. Tahitian vanilla has limited availability and may be hard to find.

Indonesian vanilla: These beans are often mass-produced, picked early and blended with bourbon vanilla to make extracts. Though harsher and less flavourful than other varieties (although premium grade beans are excellent), Indonesian vanilla holds up well in high heat and is perfect for cookies and cakes, where the subtleties would be baked out.

Make your own vanilla sweeteners:
Vanilla Sugar
Vanilla Extract
Vanilla Syrup

Click here to browse through Canadian Living's irresistible vanilla recipes >>

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Irresistible vanilla: How to cook with the many forms of vanilla

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