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More Than Just Extract: A Guide to Vanilla Paste, Powder, and More

At Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream in New York City, there are notably a ton of vanilla options on the menu—at the time of this writing, seven to be exact. To the casual vanilla consumer, this may seem like overkill, but real vanilla heads know that, despite the word becoming synonymous with boring or basic, the flavor is deeply complex.

Like salt, vanilla enhances the other ingredients in a recipe; chocolate, coffee, brown sugar, and eggs (in custards and puddings) all shine a little brighter when vanilla is around.

Without it, baking projects tend to taste flat and uninspired. Also, depending on the variety of vanilla you use—the species of plant, where it was grown—it can take on a number of slightly different flavors, from creamy and light to robust and boozy.

Vanilla is a pantry essential: If you ever even think about baking, you’re likely have a bottle of the extract in your kitchen. But do you really know what it is you’re dutifully measuring out, teaspoonful by teaspoonful, into all your cookies and cakes?

It might be time for a primer on all of the forms the flavor can take, including vanilla paste, powder, sugar, and yes, the fragrant, dark brown extract that seems to pop up in every sweet recipe (and some savory ones too). Read on for some background on each vanilla-based ingredient, plus a few of Epi’s favorite brands to shop for in each category.

Pure vanilla extract

If you have one form of vanilla in your house, it’s probably this one: the most ubiquitous in recipes, easiest to find in stores, and least expensive—at least in terms of all-natural vanilla. Vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans that are cured and soaked in a solution that helps to draw out the complex notes. The resulting brew is highly concentrated and deeply flavorful, ready to be deployed into cookie doughs, cakes, frostings, and more.

When shopping for high-quality vanilla extract, check the ingredients list to ensure you’re looking at a very simple mixture: just water, alcohol, and vanilla bean extractives. (Alcohol-free extracts are made with glycerin or propylene glycol instead; you won’t be able to taste the difference, but alcohol-free extracts don’t have as strong a scent straight from the bottle.) Some brands include a bit of sugar in the blend as well to act as a stabilizer, which usually measures out to about 3% to 5%. Any extracts with a higher sugar percentage—or that include corn syrup or another added sweetener in the ingredients list—should be avoided as they can potentially mess with the final texture and taste of your baking project.

Some vanilla extracts are more earthy in flavor, some have floral notes, and others are mellow and creamy; finding your favorite may involve sampling a few varieties. Nielsen-Massey, a trusted name in vanilla, specializes in single-origin extracts, so you can easily narrow in on the differences between vanilla beans grown in different parts of the world.

Vanilla beans

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Vanilla beans aren’t beans at all but the fruit of certain orchid plants that grow in just a handful of countries. The long pods, which range in color from dark brown to black, are harvested before they are fully ripe and split open; the sealed outer layer protects the seeds we associate with speckled vanilla ice cream and custards. Each bean contains about ½ teaspoon of seeds.

Whole vanilla beans are the most expensive vanilla product to purchase. In fact, they’re the second most expensive spice in the world, outpriced only by saffron. You’ll commonly find them for sale in resealable pouches in packs of two or three. Look for beans that are plump and shiny, not dried out—though if you do let a bean dry out in your pantry, you can rehydrate it by letting it soak in warm water for a few hours.

To use a vanilla bean, split the pod lengthwise on one side with a small sharp knife, keeping the other side intact. Scrape the seeds out of the pod using the flat side of your knife; reserve the pod for another use: You can steep it in dairy for panna cotta or use it to make a vanilla simple syrup.

Vanilla bean paste

Vanilla bean paste is a less expensive (and simpler) way to get the characteristic black flecks of a vanilla bean than buying and scraping whole beans. You can use it in your baking recipes as a teaspoon-for-teaspoon substitute for vanilla extract, where it adds some visual flair and bit more potent flavor.

Vanilla bean paste has a lot going on; it’s a mixture of vanilla bean seeds, sugar, vanilla extract, and stabilizers and/or thickeners that help it keep its smooth texture. It has a bit of a shorter life span than vanilla extract, but if you bake cookies and cakes with regularity, you should use up a container well within the three-year recommended time.

Vanilla powder

You can also substitute vanilla powder for vanilla extract in a 1:1 ratio—it’s useful if you’re looking for a dry, alcohol-free alternative. Vanilla powder has the consistency of powdered sugar and ranges in color from white to sandy beige.

It’s made from vanilla extract and cornstarch, dextrose, or maltodextrin, which helps keep the powder from clumping. The clean, potent flavor of vanilla powder makes it a great addition to dry mixes—think just-add-butter-and-eggs cookie, cake, or waffle bases—or as a powdered sugar substitute for coating just-fried doughnuts or sifting over cake.

Because it’s unsweetened, it can also be used in savory applications, like in rubs for meat or in barbecue-style sauces, where the floral, woodsy flavor is a welcome counterpoint to smoke.

Vanilla sugar

Vanilla sugar is raw sugar flavored with vanilla extract and sometimes a scraped out bean as well; it looks like chunky, crunchy sugar pieces that are caramel in color, sometimes with the occasional black vanilla bean fleck.

Unlike citrus sugar made with zest that gets incorporated into a recipe, vanilla sugar is unsuitable as a substitute for granulated sugar because of its courser texture. Instead, it functions best as a finishing topper, sprinkled on cookies before they’re baked or around the outer edge of a tart crust, like demerara or turbinado sugars.

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Imitation vanilla

Imitation vanilla extract is a lab-produced alternative to the pure stuff, made with either 100% synthesized vanillin (the main flavor component of cured vanilla beans) or a blend of vanillin and natural vanilla. Imitation vanilla tastes nearly identical to pure vanilla, and many formal taste tests report that it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference.

And because natural vanilla is in high demand and only grown in a few parts of the world—some of which, like Madagascar, have suffered from devastating natural disasters in recent years—imitation extract is also a sustainable, environmentally friendly option. If you’re concerned about price (natural extract costs about five times as much as 100% synthetic) and the future of vanilla, imitation might be the move for you.

One note on color: Some imitation vanillas include caramel coloring in the ingredients list as a way to make the liquid look more like pure extract, while others are formulated to be pale gold in color or even totally clear. Avid bakers use transparent vanilla to make super white frostings, pale angel food cake, light sugar cookies, and any other project that requires the flavor—but none of the color—of vanilla.

Can you substitute clear vanilla extract?

Yes, clear vanilla extract is a perfectly acceptable substitute for natural vanilla extract. Although the flavor and color of the two products is very different—natural extract has a richer, fuller flavor than clear—clear vanilla is still made using all-natural ingredients. Natural vanilla extract, which can be purchased in crystal-clear liquid or powdered form, adds depth to recipes while natural vanillin adds an unmistakable savory note that’s used in everything from barbecue sauce to ice cream. Clear vanilla is just as potent as natural, but where natural vanillin has a savory character, clear vanillin has an equally strong sweet aspect.

Is clear vanilla extract real vanilla?

Technically, clear vanilla extract is not real vanilla. Like natural vanilla, clear vanilla begins with an infusion of cured and ground vanilla beans, which are then cut with water and alcohol and left to steep. The difference is that in a natural bean-based system, the infusion continues for weeks or even months, allowing additional compounds like vanillin to develop. Clear vanilla extract uses 100% natural vanillin that’s been purified and stripped of colorings and flavorings; this process shortens the infusion time to a matter of days or hours.

Does clear vanilla taste the same as regular vanilla?

Clear vanilla is a close approximation of regular vanilla extract. It’s made with natural vanillin, a compound that occurs naturally in many foods like bananas and even pine trees. Although it may not have the same depth of flavor as regular vanilla, clear vanilla has aromatics that are very similar.

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While it will dissolve quickly in cold milk or water, clear vanilla tends to clump when mixed with hot liquids like milk or water; this can be avoided by adding the extract near the end of cooking time or adding it after the pot has been removed from heat entirely.

Is imitation clear vanilla extract the same as vanilla extract?

Imitation vanilla extract is very similar in color and flavor to regular vanilla extract, though it’s generally less expensive. It usually contains vanillin, a compound that occurs naturally in many foods like bananas, pine trees, and even tobacco leaves. Imitation vanilla extract is made using synthetic vanillin, which doesn’t taste exactly like natural vanillin but does deliver all the same sweetness cues of the real deal. Real vanilla extract is made from the same plant that produces chocolate and has a far more complex flavor profile—and higher price tag—than imitation vanilla.

Should you substitute clear imitation for regular imitation?

It depends on your recipe, how much you use, and how much time you have. Clear imitation vanilla and regular imitation vanilla are very similar in flavor, but they differ slightly in color. Clear imitation vanilla is clearer and lighter than regular imitation; while they’re both made with vanillin, clear contains less caramel coloring to make it more transparent. The two are just as potent as natural extract and can be used interchangeably depending on your preference.

Are imitation vanilla pods the same as real vanilla pods?

Yes, although they don’t look like the dried pods we associate with pure vanilla extract, imitation vanilla pods are made from the same parts of a cured orchid plant as natural vanilla. They come in a variety of forms: powder, extract, and paste, but all contain the same flavor compound: vanillin.

Are vanilla pods expensive?

A pound of whole vanilla beans retails for about $9.95, while a pound of extract can cost up to $8.95; imitation vanilla pods are the least expensive option at just 20 cents per pod. Vanilla is naturally grown in a few select countries like Madagascar, Mexico and India; it’s also grown in countries like China and Indonesia, but the process is far less intensive due to lower quality soil.

If you love the flavor of real vanilla extract, but feel the need to keep your budget in check, clear imitation vanilla is a viable option. If you’re time-strapped and need to use real extract, clear vanilla can be substituted in most recipes where real extract would normally be used. Just make sure to keep clear vanilla and imitation vanilla on hand because they’re useful in different situations. The flavor of imitation vanilla is a lot stronger than that of natural extract, so it’s best-suited for recipes where you want a strong note of vanilla (like chocolate cake, cookies, or brownies). Clear imitation is ideal for everything from frosting to ice cream; used sparingly, it can lend the perfect hint of sweetness without overpowering.

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