Floral, aromatic vanilla is derived from the tiny seeds found in vanilla “beans”— actually the seedpods of a tropical orchid. This powerful flavor enhancer is most commonly used in American kitchens as an extract, made by steeping cured vanilla beans in an alcohol solution to infuse it with vanillin: a flavor compound that gives vanilla its characteristic taste and scent. (Vanillin also can be synthesized to create artificial vanilla extract.) Double-strength vanilla extract simply uses twice the amount of vanilla beans for the same volume of conventional extract.
However, there are several other forms of vanilla available to home cooks. In general, extract is best in recipes where you want vanilla flavor, but not the telltale flecks that announce its presence. Conversely, vanilla paste is an easy-to-measure option for items enhanced by both the flavor and appearance of vanilla, such as homemade ice cream. Vanilla seeds and pure vanilla powder (made from pulverized vanilla beans) are especially useful for applications where moisture is a consideration. For example, the seeds are ideal as additions to baking recipes in which extra liquid would destabilize a delicate dough, while vanilla powder can be a great ingredient for custom spice blends. Both can be used to make vanilla sugar. (However, vanilla paste and some vanilla powders contain added sweetener, so sugar-sensitive recipes may need adjustment.)
But how does the potency of these products compare to that of pure vanilla extract? We surveyed four vanilla products to see how they measure up.
|Roughly 1/2 bean
|Vanilla bean powder
|Vanilla extract, double-strength