Ingredient Comparison: Vanilla Beans versus Vanilla Extract

Have you ever walked into a kitchen, smelled something amazing, and inquired with the chef to find out if it's vanilla?  The distinctive aroma and flavor of vanilla excites palates far and wide, which finds the this expensive bean on many recipe ingredient lists. Many recipes call for you to split open a vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds inside, and add the entire contents and bean to a recipe, (then removing the pod at the end.) Instead of paying up to 10 dollars a bean, you may want to substitute vanilla extract or the imitation version, but when is that appropriate?

Vanilla beans are the seedpods of an vanilla orchid plant, which is native to Tropical America. The expense for vanilla and it's extract come from the process by which we get the beans. Each seed is hand-pollinated, then later harvested by hand. So whether you've bought a product from Madagascar, Mexico, Tahiti, or elsewhere, there's a reason it's so pricey.

The beans inside give desserts such as custards, ice cream, and even jams and jellies a distinctive taste and aroma. Vanilla is a "flavor potentiator," enhancing the taste of many other ingredients such as chocolate, coffee, fruit, and nuts. Cooks Illustrated suggests using the bean in recipes that won't be submitted to high temperatures, such as custards and puddings.

When should you use vanilla extract? Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in water and ethyl alcohol. More economical than the beans, vanilla extract is great for baking. Testers for Cooks Illustrated could not tell the difference between bean or extract. Cook's Illustrated magazine recently suggested that cooks and bakers can even substitute imitation vanilla instead of vanilla extract in your recipes. Whichever you choose, substitute one to 2 teaspoons of the extract in place of the bean.

Do you use vanilla extract or vanilla beans?

Photo: acfou on flickr