With so many choice of vanilla out there, how do you know which one’s right for you? Let me explain a few things about each, and then it might be easier for to determine which of the different forms of vanilla are right for you.
Vanilla extract is the most used of the three vanilla options and it’s probably due to the fact that it’s the most affordable. It is made by soaking the beans in a mixture of water and alcohol until the bean separates and liquifies. The alcohol cooks out during baking, leaving behind the vanilla flavor. There are two different kinds of extract: pure and imitation. Most people use imitation. Imitation is not as strong as a pure extract, and can give off a strong aftertaste of alcohol, but keep in mind it is cheaper. I recommend when purchasing an extract, to spend a little bit more on the pure extract and get a better flavor. It is a little pricier, but doesn’t require as much for a solid vanilla taste.
Vanilla paste is kind of an in-between of sorts of an extract and a vanilla bean. Unlike the extract, it is not made with alcohol. It is made by infusing the bean into a thick, sugary syrup. It carries a stronger vanilla flavor than extract, but is not as strong as the bean. It gives the look, smell and taste of using a bean, with the ease of using an extract.
If you are wanting a strong vanilla smell and flavor in your baking, vanilla beans are the way to go. They are a long brown, waxy pod full of tiny little dark seeds. (If you’ve never seen the bean, you’ve probably seen the dark flecks in a vanilla bean flavored ice cream). When using them, always be sure that the beans are smooth, tender and somewhat round. You want to be sure they are plump enough so you know they are full of the flavorful brown flecks. If you are on the market for them, be sure not to purchase dry beans. They are past their prime and are no longer good. Like the paste, using the bean adds dark seeds to your baking, spreading the flavor and dimension every which way. Typically, one vanilla bean will equal 2-3 teaspoons of pure extract. You can make your own vanilla extract by taking a vanilla bean, cutting in half lengthwise and placing the whole thing (seeds and all) in approximately 3/4 cup of vodka. Be sure to cover it tightly and let it steep for 6 months before using it in your baking.