NOT SO PLAIN VANILLA
Vanilla is an incredibly powerful ingredient that most of us use all the time. If you’re anything like us, your vanilla is one of the most used ingredients in your kitchen. Vanilla extract goes into your chocolate chip cookies, and perhaps you scrape a vanilla bean for your homemade vanilla ice cream, or even use the entire bean for your grandmother’s famous custard recipe. Despite the regularity of vanilla use in our kitchen, we tend to take it for granted. Did you know vanilla comes from a beautiful, delicate orchid that must be pollinated by a particular species of bees? In parts of the world where the bee does not naturally live, the orchids are hand-pollinated using a stick the size of a toothpick. On top of that, the bean itself can only be harvested during a very short 24 hour period of the orchid’s life, after the flower has opened but before the pod has ripened. This is why vanilla is the second most expensive spice, after saffron.
The three most popular types of vanilla, Mexican, Bourbon, and Tahitian, all have their own unique flavor profile, and they each have something different to offer to the dishes they’re enhancing. Vanilla originated from Mexico, and for a long time, they had a monopoly on it. The Mexican vanilla bean is thick with a robust, intoxicating fragrance and a smooth flavor with a depth that none of the other varieties can match. You’ll want to use Mexican vanilla only when you want vanilla to be the star of the recipe. Bourbon vanilla beans are grown in Madagascar and the West Indian island of Reunion. 75% of all vanilla comes from this area. The long, thin beans are incredibly sweet. When you think of vanilla flavor, this is likely what you imagine. This type of vanilla is best for baking. Tahitian vanilla comes from the island of Tahiti. This bean is more plump and moist than the Bourbon bean. It has a fruity and floral taste, often described as a cherry or licorice flavor. However, because it contains less seeds, the flavor is subtle and best used in recipes that feature vanilla as the main flavor profile. Tahitian vanilla is our personal favorite.
Most people stock their pantry with good old fashioned pure vanilla extract because it is easy to find and relatively affordable. When purchasing your extract, try to avoid the imitation versions because these tend to have a much weaker flavor than true vanilla.
Cooking with whole vanilla beans is simple, fun, and improves the taste of any recipe that calls for vanilla. You’ll want to start with a fresh, plump bean in order to make it easy to work with. Look for beans that are soft, oily and have an intense aroma of vanilla. You’ll want to store the beans in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. A dark cabinet or pantry at room temperature will work perfectly. Avoid putting them in the refrigerator as this tends to dry them out and excess moisture can cause mold. To use, you simply split the bean down the middle with a sharp knife, taking care not to cut all the way through to the other side. Then use the back of a knife or a spoon to scrape out all of the seeds inside. Leftover vanilla pods can be used to make vanilla sugar, so don’t throw them out after you’re finished with them!
Fun Ways to Use Vanilla
- A tablespoon of vanilla added to a box cake mix will create a richer and more decadent flavor, and it might convince your friends you made the cake from scratch!
- You can make vanilla infused sugar using the leftover pod. The easiest way is to simply submerge the vanilla pods in sugar. However, this will produce vanilla scented sugar with only a hint of vanilla flavor. If you would prefer something stronger, you can wash the pods and dry them out really well before blending them with sugar in a food processor. This sugar can be used in any recipe for which you want a vanilla flavor, and it is wonderful in coffee and tea.
- You can mix the scraped vanilla seeds into drinks, yogurt, cottage cheese, oatmeal, or nearly any other favorite food or snack for an extra added pop of flavor.
- A few drops of vanilla will cut the acidity of tomato-based foods.
Vanilla Buttercream Frosting Recipe
- 2 cups Confectioners Sugar
- 2 tablespoons of Butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons of Milk
- ½ Vanilla Bean (scraped seeds only) or 1 teaspoon of Vanilla Extract
Combine all ingredients, beat on medium speed until smooth and fluffy. Taste and enjoy!