Variations of Vanilla

Since I have started to really take an interest in baking, I have unearthed a whole new world of ingredients that I never knew existed. This is how you know you really love something and that it is a passion. I truly get butterflies in my stomach learning about the intricacies of the art, tools and ingredients for baking.

Now, baking seems pretty straightforward, right? The standard recipes all call for flour sugar, eggs, vanilla and baking soda or powder, with dashes of additional accoutrement peppered in to define the flavor of the dessert at hand. Sounds like it should be pretty simple, but not so fast!

It is quite extraordinary, when you really break it down. Every time I peruse my cookbooks in search of my next project, almost every recipe calls for that same roster of ingredients. It reminds me of music in that sense. There are only so many notes available in the spectrum, yet artists continually come up with new melodies and hit songs using their creativity to unlock completely new sounds and genres. Baking is like that too, only the artists make their music in the kitchen, and their hit songs equate to their recipes.

So how is it, when the ingredients are consistently so similar, that bakers are able to conjure up such different textures and flavors?! I am finding, through practice, trial, and error, that so much of baking is just like any other art. It calls for sleight of hand, creative vision and willingness for experimentation to become great. 

So here is how it goes. You take your basic recipes, you learn them inside and out and you practice the techniques. You try, you fail. You try again, and you probably fail again. You do this over and over until you don’t fail anymore and you start to hit your groove. And then it finally hits you. Suddenly, it is as if you have unlocked a whole new level in the video game that you could never break past. It is when the lightbulb goes off and you start to get a knack for it.

Baking takes patience and persistence. This is where I am finding the fun to really begin. This is where you start to take those basic recipes and say to yourself, ”Hmmm. What if I did this, instead of that? Or, “Hold up! What if I use this ingredient, instead of that one?” It is tinkering at its finest, like a modern day Gepetto in a sugary workshop, and it really is a lot of fun!

The Sweetest Thing

So out of all of the things involved in baking, the one ingredient I am finding the most fascinating at the moment is the wide world of vanilla. On a recent trip to one particular local grocery store that I don’t normally frequent, I was pleasantly surprised to find an impressively large and well stocked baking aisle. I am unsure if I just hit it at exactly the right time after a restock, or if this was a common anomaly. Regardless, I spent no less than an hour and a half staring agape at the extracts and pastes, carefully scanning to and fro, from top to bottom across every single row. 

I stopped here and there to pluck some of the more rare and intriguing items from the shelf to read the label and learn what they were, where they were from, and what they were used for. Some didn’t say, and some were even written in different languages. As you can imagine, this gave me a laundry list of Google searches to perform once I returned home. 

From imported vanilla beans, to lemon paste, and every cinnamon stick, cocoa powder and orange extract in between, it truly is fascinating how many options are available and how many recipes there are to learn and tackle. I revel in every bit of what I still have left to learn.

My latest obsession, though, is the humble vanilla extract. Throughout my entire life, for every baking project I have completed, I never stopped to look at the options in any detail. I would simply reach hurriedly for the tried and true McCormick Brand Pure Vanilla Extract, wheel my (inevitably broken-wheeled) cart into the distance and call it a day. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that brand, but I have discovered that there is a whole plethora of vanilla out there that is anything but…well…”vanilla.”

My first dabble in this arena is with a brand that many will be familiar with. It has risen in popularity amongst specialty chefs, first appearing on the shelves of specialty stores, and has since trickled down to the masses in traditional grocery stores. 

Though the company has been around for about a century, Nielsen-Massey Vanillas has recently crept in as a household name these days. Yes, it is a bit more expensive, but the flavor is out of this world in baked goods. This was the brand that opened my eyes to the fact that there is more than one vanilla out there. You can find it anywhere from Kroger and Publix to Williams Sonoma, and it is revered as a higher-end baking option by chefs and home cooks, alike.

Once I discovered there were “different vanillas,” down the rabbit hole I went. Naturally, I began a research project on vanilla of epic proportions. (I am a Virgo after all…this is in our nature to research to death.) Boy oh boy, did this set off a firestorm of advertisements, served up for my viewing pleasure. 

Google has that way of taking your interests and rebounding them to you to encourage impulse purchases. I worked in online marketing for years, so I get how it works. Sometimes (most of the time) this is an annoying feature, and somewhat disturbing how closely they are watching. I will say, in this instance, I was pleasantly surprised to make new discoveries that I may not have found myself, or that would have at least taken me longer to stumble upon.

Google came along and said, “Hey! You like baking?! Well, here is what you need, girlfriend!!” And with that, along came my discovery of my offshoot latest obsession, Heilala Vanilla. Ahhhhhhhhhh. (That is the sound of the heavens opening up.)

I kid you not, when I took a gander at their website, I became as giddy as a school-girl. Y’all. I had never imagined there could be so many options for one simple ingredient. And judging by how many famous chefs follow this particular brand online, I am probably the last person to the party. Needless to say, I will be frequenting this site to test out different forms and report back on how they can be used and if they work out well.

I am gonna break down what I have found. I may not have used all of these yet, but you can bet your sweet bippy I will be experimenting with all of them eventually! So let’s get down to brass tacks. Here is the skinny on all the vanilly:

Vanilla Extract

So, what I have found about vanilla extract is that there are many different types and imports of this one humble ingredient. It is actually made by soaking vanilla beans in vodka, believe it or not. So you have options.

You can purchase your own vanilla beans and soak them in a jar with vodka for some time, which gives you the creative control of ordering the finest beans you can find. You can also replenish this mixture as you go. Some chefs have decades old jars of vanilla that they have been maturing and replenishing like fine wine. The great Ina Garten herself makes a homemade vanilla extract and she has had her jar for over 20 years. Pretty cool, right? 

The general equation for good quality vanilla extract is made from steeping whole vanilla beans in ethyl alcohol and water. If you see a bottle labeled “Pure vanilla extract,” it means that it contains 35% alcohol and used 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter during infusion. (Serious Eats)

If you opt to purchase your extract premade like most folks, you want to always read the label to be sure that it is “PURE Vanilla Extract” and not flavored. The pure version is sometimes slightly more expensive, but it is the one that uses real vanilla beans found in nature, not chemicals made to taste like the real thing. 

Here is a quick rundown on what is out there in terms of types, not brands. Much like the grapes used for wine, vanilla beans from different regions have different flavor profiles based on the environment and terrain in which they are grown, and can be used to create different tastes in recipes.


This version has higher concentrations of pure vanillin than beans from other countries. Vanillin is an organic compound that delivers the signature sweet, warm and creamy tones that we love so much in vanilla. This is what makes Madagascar vanilla beans so rich in flavor and so desirable above its counterparts.

Madagascar Bourbon 

This version is generally aged in bourbon barrels that once housed fermenting bourbon blends, giving it a richer flavor and aroma, with bourbon undertones.


Known as one of the best tasting vanilla beans in the world, Indonesia is also the second largest vanilla bean producer in the world, second only to Madagascar. Though the Madagascar beans are lauded as the top choice, Indonesian beans actually contain more vanilla caviar and a lower moisture content, and they contain a unique flavor from the curing process completed there. They are most interchangeable with Madagascar’s version, and considered a “Rolls Royce” of the vanilla bean world. Due to it’s pungent and intense flavor, it is a great finishing vanilla or for use in more delicate recipes where you need the vanilla flavor to be a standout ingredient.


A rich marriage of sweet and woody notes, the Mexican vanilla flavor profile has a deep, creamy, spicy-sweet character, similar to clove or nutmeg. Mexican Pure Vanilla Extract’s unique flavor profile means it works especially well with chocolate, citrus fruits, cinnamon, cloves, ginger/gingerbread and other warm spices. The vanilla’s spiciness complements chili peppers and tomatoes, smoothing out their heat and acidity.


Tahitian vanilla’s flavor profile is floral, fruity and often described as anise- and cherry-like. Tahitian Pure Vanilla Extract is best used in refrigerated and frozen foods, where it adds a delicious and delicate vanilla flavor.


Ugandan “Bourbon” vanilla has bold vanilla aroma, but also has strong notes of cocoa. It can be described as sweet and creamy, with hints of dried fruit and subtle milk chocolate notes, making it a great option to pair with rich chocolate dessert recipes.

Extract With Seeds

Pure vanilla extract with seeds simply means it includes the natural seeds from the vanilla bean, adding a grittier element, as well as a stronger texture and flavor or real vanilla. This is great to use when you are creating a recipe where you would like the authentic flecks of vanilla to be showcased in the final product, such as a lighter color almond or vanilla cake, in cremes or in icings.

Beyond Extract

Ok, so I have gone on a lot about extracts here, but there are many other exciting options out there too, including:

Vanilla Paste

In theory, you can use vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste interchangeably, but I tend to keep them separate. The paste has a thick, syrup-like consistency and is a blend of vanilla extract and vanilla powder mixed into a paste to give you an “eye-opening” intensity. Due to the inclusion of the actual vanilla bean in the mix, the paste will be flecked with specks of vanilla, so it gives desserts the look and flavor of real vanilla, making it an especially popular option for glazes and frostings.

Vanilla Powder

This is a fine powder made from dried, ground and processed vanilla beans. Some products may also contain dextrose or cornstarch to keep the powder from clumping. This is a great alternative to vanilla extract if you need to use a dry ingredient, or an alcohol-free option.

Ground Vanilla

Often used interchangeably with vanilla powder, the difference between the two is that ground vanilla contains 100% ground vanilla beans with no fillers. Always check the ingredients on your packaging to ensure that you are getting the grade that you desire and need.

Vanilla Sugar

This is simply granulated sugar infused with whole vanilla beans. Be cautious, as this can be made with vanilla powder or vanilla essence, which may not be the real deal. Look at the label to ensure that good sugar is used and that it is mixed only with whole, ground vanilla beans, for the best flavor and results. This version is great for sprinkling on top of desserts or infusing vanilla flavor by using this as your sugar ingredient. If you use it in place of regular sugar, be sure you are aware to possibly adjust the vanilla extract called for in your recipes. 

Vanilla Beans

This is the Big Kahuna of all vanilla, from which all else stems. You can always split and vanilla bean and scrape the inside down with a sharp knife carefully to get the vanilla required in your recipes. Many pastry chefs will do just that. The reason there are alternatives is generally because the true vanilla bean is so expensive. However, some chefs will tell you, even though the beans are more expensive, you can order them and make your own extract and it ends up being cheaper than repeatedly purchasing good vanilla extract from the store. Just be sure to take the time to start with Grade A beans when making your own for a better tasting end result. In other words, don’t skimp.

One last thing that I implore you to look for while shopping is the sustainability element of your vanilla. Since many of the countries producing these glorious beans are farmed locally, it is important to make sure that the company is using best practices to protect and support the land and people from whence they came.

I hope that at least one other person finds all of this as fascinating as I do, and perhaps there are others out there that have yet to discover the wild west of vanilla and this will be their entry into that world. If you have a baker in your life, really good vanilla beans, or a homemade vanilla extract, would be excellent and easy gifts to consider too, since the holiday season is now underway. Please drop a message in the comments to let me know how you are using or experimenting with vanilla products in your own recipes. Happy baking!

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