COOKING SCHOOL: VANILLA BEANS
This is going to be my Vanilla Bean public service announcement! Each year I typically buy a couple of bottles of pure vanilla extract, a jar or two of vanilla bean paste, and more than a few vanilla beans. Scraping the seeds from fresh vanilla beans and using it for special baked goods, homemade ice cream or frosting is just such a treat, and the scraped pods are wonderful to infuse granulated sugar with real vanilla flavor for cooking and sprinkling.
I was starting to run low on the pure vanilla extract I use for everyday baking, and when I reached for a bottle today at Costco the price was $24.00 a bottle - up from the $8.99 price I paid for a 16 oz. bottle about the same time last year. Vanilla beans were priced at $40.00 for 10 beans - more than double what I paid just before the holidays. When I checked the price for a smaller bottle of pure vanilla extract at Market District, it was ON SALE for $3.99 for a one-ounce bottle. YIKES! I just about had a heart attack! And these aren't even the premium vanilla brands! To be truthful, I have never seen such a price increase before, so Mama had to do a little bit of research.
One of the reasons that vanilla is so expensive is that orchids that produce vanilla beans only grow in a few places around the world. It takes three years for the vine to produce a vanilla bean and it is VERY labor-intensive - each orchid has to be pollinated individually by hand. They're difficult to grow, harvest, and transform into extract, which is why we end up paying a bit more for it.
Seventy-nine percent of the world’s vanilla fields are in Madagascar. A shortage there has helped drive up the cost of vanilla beans from about $11 per pound in 2011 to $193 by the end of 2016. That’s for high-quality beans, which get harder to find as the price goes up. Many farmers harvest the beans before they fully mature, worried thieves will steal them because they’re so valuable. and the shortage is predicted to be even worse in 2017, which is causing prices to skyrocket. Many companies are already looking at using artificial vanilla in their products because of the prohibitive cost of pure vanilla.
NOT ALL VANILLA IS CREATED EQUAL! When it comes to baking with vanilla, there are choices: pure vanilla extract, vanilla paste, and vanilla beans. There's also vanilla sugar and infused vanilla syrups - the list goes on and on - for both premium brands and store brands, and basically you will get what you pay for. Ordering online is the secret to getting great premium vanilla products at the best prices. Buy in bulk and store wisely, and you're set for months of flavorful baking!
Pure vanilla is absolutely worth the price. It adds a distinctive warm, round, sweet note and depth of flavor to anything it is added to.
Most of us rely on good old-fashioned pure vanilla extract for baking because it's easy to find and relatively affordable. Vanilla extract is made by macerating vanilla beans in a mixture of alcohol and water. Think of vanilla extract like olive oil. Keep a solid, reasonably priced supermarket brand on hand for everyday baking, and save the spendy, more robust vanilla products (like premium extracts, vanilla-bean paste, and whole vanilla beans) for recipes that are very vanilla-focused, such as vanilla cakes, sugar cookies, pastry cream, buttercream frosting, and of course ice cream!
And about imitation vanilla extract...although imitation vanilla may contain a hint of vanillin, which is derived from vanilla beans, the majority of it is usually lignin, which is a wood pulp byproduct. The flavor just isn't great and it tends to have a weird chemical aftertaste - and if you are adding vanilla for flavor, why would you even both with the imitation?
Vanilla beans, while on the pricier side, are the ultimate in flavoring and scenting baked goods. Vanilla beans consist of an almost waxy dark brown pod filled with thousands of little brown flavorful specks. When purchasing them, you want to make sure the beans are plump and smooth, never dry. They should smell highly fragrant and have a slight shine to them. The big perk to using vanilla beans is the way the thousands of little black dots fleck throughout your batter, buttercream or ice cream. For lighter, fluffier desserts like white cakes, cupcakes, or cheesecake I usually use a vanilla bean because the flavor is so intense and the visual little black specks of vanilla in the finished product is always spectacular!
Vanilla paste is also another great option. It's essentially a small jar of the scraped-out vanilla pod, so you're going to get that super fragrant, sweet, speckled end product with the convenience of a quick scoop of your spoon.
As far as conversions go, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract is equal to one 2-inch piece of vanilla bean, so 1 typical vanilla bean will equal 3 teaspoons extract. As for vanilla paste, there are usually directions on each jar indicating proper equivalencies, so consult that first as the concentrations can differ. To make vanilla sugar, place a your scraped vanilla bean pods into a container with granulated sugar, shake, and store in an airtight container - the sugar will be infused with the vanilla flavor and is great sprinkled on cookies and other baked goods!
My kids always tease me, because whenever I use vanilla extract, I usually dab a little bit on my neck like perfume - it just smells SO GOOD! But I may be doing a little bit less dabbing in the future!
So lesson learned - if you happen to see pure vanilla extract or beans at a lower price, grab them up fast!
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