Bean, Paste or Extract: Are You Using the Right Kind of Vanilla for Your Recipe?

When the choices include whole beans, vanilla bean paste or many types of vanilla extract, how do you know what's right for your recipe?

Vanilla is one of those things I took for granted growing up. There was always a small bottle of vanilla extract in the pantry, and I learned the hard way that it smells much better than it tastes! Today, gourmet markets offer all kinds of vanilla products, from whole beans to vanilla bean paste. Some of these products cost a pretty penny, which begs the question: How do you know what kind of vanilla is best?

What Is Vanilla?

Your vanilla paste and extracts are made from vanilla beans. The bean itself grows on the vanilla orchid, a vine-like plant that wraps around tall trees. It’s a picky plant that only grows within 10 and 20 degrees of the equator. The sweet spot? Madagascar. Specialty brands like Nielsen-Massey also sell vanilla sourced from Mexico, Tahiti, Uganda and Indonesia.

Vanilla Beans

To infuse the purest, most intense vanilla flavor into your baked goods, go straight to the source and use a vanilla bean pod. It should be shiny and plump, and it’s best to store vanilla beans wrapped in aluminum foil to keep the light from spoiling the goods inside. You won’t want to keep these in the pantry for more than a few months; if it dries out, it will no longer contain the oils that make it so aromatic and flavorful.

When to use: If vanilla is the star of the show, it’s totally worth it to splurge on vanilla beans. Give it a try in vanilla bean cupcakes or a vanilla bean fizz.

How to use: Using a sharp paring knife, split the vanilla bean in half. Scrape out the seeds using the dull side of the knife and use them immediately. Don’t throw away the pod! You can simmer it in milk or cream, or store it in sugar to make vanilla sugar.

Conversion: One vanilla pod equals 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste.

Vanilla Bean Paste

If you don’t have time to scrape vanilla beans, or you won’t use them before they dry out, vanilla bean paste is a great alternative. While it’s offered by only a few companies, including Nielsen-Massey and the Spice House, our Test Kitchen pros agree it’s worth the search. It’s made by blending concentrated vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder, creating a paste with a maple syrup-like consistency. You’ll find the paste contains flecks from the pod and has a more intense flavor than extract. Be sure to check the ingredients label before picking up vanilla bean paste, as some companies use sugar or corn syrup as a binder.

When to use: If you want to see black vanilla flecks in your baked goods but you don’t want to spend the money on whole vanilla beans, reach for the paste. Use it next time you make a vanilla bean angel food cake or vanilla ice cream.

How to use: Grab a clean teaspoon and dig it straight into the jar. Some of the paste will stick to the spoon, so use your fingers or a silicone spatula to make sure to capture every last bit.

Conversion: Every batch of vanilla paste varies in terms of concentration, so check on the side of the jar to find out how much to use. But, in general, you can use the equal amounts of paste as you would of vanilla extract.

Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract is the most affordable type of vanilla. Some extracts are made from whole beans, while others are made from the pods after the specks are removed. The vanilla is macerated with alcohol and water, infusing its flavor into the liquid and stretching it to make it last longer.

When shopping for vanilla extract, look for the word “pure” on the label. The imitation stuff isn’t as flavorful, and it also has a weird aftertaste. Find out which vanilla extract to use in your recipe.

When to use: Most recipes that call for vanilla extract use it as a flavoring agent, but it’s not necessarily the dominant flavor. If you’re whipping up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, it’s probably okay to use extract.

How to use: Pour the extract out of the bottle into a clean teaspoon. Since the liquid is so thin, it shouldn’t stick to the measuring spoon.

Conversion: Each teaspoon of vanilla extract equals 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste or a 2-inch piece of vanilla bean.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.