Pods, paste, extract, or essence … we demystify the world of vanilla
If you bake, you will be familiar with this fragrant and essential ingredient in cakes, custards, vanilla slices, caramel slices, panna cotta, ice cream, the list goes on… But if you are shopping for vanilla extract you will see several choices on the shelves at Hill Street. Which one is best? Why is vanilla extract so expensive? And can you make it yourself?
Vanilla beans or pods are the edible fruit of a tropical climbing orchid indigenous to South America. They take about 3 years to reach maturity and flower. Once the plant has flowered, the pods remain on the plant for about 9 months to allow the aroma to develop. They are then picked, dried, cured and graded.
This long process explains their relatively high price. The best pods are moist, succulent, aromatic and full-flavoured and retail for between $4 and $20 per pod depending on their grade and weight. Whole vanilla pods are used in cooking by splitting the pod lengthways with a sharp knife and then scraping out the hundreds of tiny seeds from each side of the halved pod.
Vanilla Bean Paste
Vanilla Bean Paste provides the intensity of flavour and visual appeal of using a scraped whole bean and is used when vanilla is the star of the show, for example in a custard, panna cotta or ice cream. It’s made by blending concentrated vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder, creating a paste with a syrupy consistency which includes the tiny black vanilla pod seeds. Vanilla bean paste is a cost effective alternative to using whole vanilla pods and retails at about $10.00 for a 65g jar, with one teaspoon providing the equivalent flavour of a whole pod.
Vanilla Extract is a flavouring made from whole vanilla beans, steeped in alcohol, which extracts the flavour from the beans to create the amber-coloured, floral-scented liquid we are familiar with.
Because it is made with whole beans, vanilla extract can be expensive, ranging from $10 to $35 for a 100ml bottle depending on brand and quality. Because only ½ or 1 teaspoon is used in a recipe, a bottle does last a while.
Vanilla Essence is in most cases a synthetic flavouring containing very little or no real vanilla, and will contain additional additives such as colouring, sweeteners and preservatives. It’s a low cost alternative for baked goods - 100ml will cost about $4- $7.50 depending on the brand.
You can make your own vanilla extract!
Making your own vanilla extract is a cost effective and easy way to have authentic, natural vanilla on hand in your pantry. While it’s an investment initially (you will need to use whole pods, the best quality you can find), it will repay you many times over. Famous cook Ina Garten, known as the Barefoot Contessa, has had a bottle of home-made vanilla extract, which she refreshes every now and again, for over 35 years!
First gather your ingredients – a 750 mL bottle of vodka or bourbon, and 10 vanilla pods, or 3-4 beans per 1 cup of alcohol, if you want to make less.
Cut the pods with a sharp paring knife, slitting them in half lengthwise.
Add the split pods to the bottle (you will need to pour out some alcohol if the bottle is full, to make room for the pods), and make sure they are fully submerged.
Close the bottle and shake gently. Let it sit in a cool dark place to steep for at least six weeks to develop flavour. Shake gently once a week as the pods and seeds will sink to the bottom.
The extract will last indefinitely and you can refresh it once it runs low by refilling it with alcohol and pods in the same ratio, and taking out the used pods, which can be ‘recycled’ by adding to a bottle of maple syrup, a container of caster sugar, or to a saucepan when poaching fruit.