Ruby Goss

Food Editor at Kitchen Stories

Vanilla—you’ll hardly find a selection of sweets (or candles, perfumes, or car fresheners, for that matter) that haven’t been tempered by its fragrance or a cheap imitation thereof. True vanilla adds depth to creamy desserts, elevating simple cakes and frostings, and making chocolate pop—just try it in chocolate chip cookies and get back to us. But despite vanilla’s saturation of the market, it’s actually only grown in a select few places in the world. Vanilla is a labor intensive crop that is processed entirely by hand from harvest to curing, which is part of the reason that true vanilla is so expensive and that synthetic vanilla flavoring is used so abundantly. Today, only 1% of vanilla consumed worldwide is actually derived from its natural source.

So whether you’re looking to get the most out of your pricey vanilla bean or wondering about the difference between vanilla essence and vanilla extract—it’s time to dive into the heady history of vanilla.

Where does vanilla come from?

Vanilla comes from the vanilla orchid, native to Mexico, where it has been used since ancient time by the indigenous peoples. To produce vanilla, the vanilla seed pods from the orchid are fermented and then dried. However, countries in the Indian and Pacific Ocean have overtaken vanilla’s native Mexico as the most prolific vanilla exporters, namely Madagascar followed by Indonesia. The most prized is Tahitian vanilla, whereas the most commonly available worldwide has usually been Madagascan—the long, thin kind. Bourbon vanilla comes from the island of Reunion and is so named because it began to be exported during the occupation by the French Bourbon kings. This is the type grown in Madagascar today and is also referred to as ‘Madagascan vanilla’. Naturally, the vanilla from each region has a different flavor profile: Mexican vanilla is said to be spicier and earthier, Tahitian vanilla has a more subtle, floral taste, and Madagascan vanilla—well, the most classically ‘vanilla’.

Why is vanilla so expensive?

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. Our local ice creamery has gone as far as hanging an info-sheet next to their vat of vanilla ice cream to explain just why it’s the most pricey scoop on offer.

It’s a large and complex issue, but by and large, there are two key factors that govern the price of vanilla—the labor-intensive production and the climate. Once vanilla is grown outside of its homeland of Mexico, it no longer has the help of the specific local bees to facilitate pollination and reproduction between male and female parts of the orchid. Meaning, in places like Madagascar, each individual vanilla orchid must be hand pollinated by a worker on the one day a year when the plant flowers. It then takes the seed pods 9 months to ripen after which they begin the curing process wherein the beans are blanched, sweated, and dried in the sun over a period of several weeks.

On top that, vanilla’s high price means that farmers face the danger of having their crops looted, adding to the precarious output of vanilla for buyers. Unlike in Madagascar, where the traditional, harvesting method is followed, some countries, like Indonesia, mass produce vanilla beans, picking them before they are at their prime and heat cured with kerosene instead of by the sun. This results in a cheaper product both price- and quality-wise.

Additionally, since vanilla orchids grow best in very hot, humid climates, vanilla bean is generally harvested in tropical countries, many of them islands, that can be affected by extreme weather. In 2017 Madagascar, the world’s biggest supplier of vanilla, was hit by cyclone and vast vanilla crops were damaged, sending the price per kilo to a record 600 USD. Since Madagascar grows almost 80% of the world’s vanilla production, when their crop was hit, smaller scale vanilla producers in countries like Hawaii, India, and Indonesia, could not supply the worldwide demand.

The many types of vanilla flavoring on the market

Vanilla bean (also known as vanilla pod)

This is true vanilla. It is usually sold in an airtight container as dried out vanilla beans lose their flavor, so purchase beans that are packaged in a vial or vacuum packed. Keep your vanilla in a cool dark place at home. It’s also important to check the label for the bean’s provenance: If you are going to buy vanilla bean, try to buy a certified fair-trade vanilla that offers farmers in poverty-stricken countries like Madagascar competitive prices, allowing them to operate sustainable businesses.

In desserts, a whole split vanilla bean, or a split and scraped vanilla bean (this gets the best of both worlds and increases the potential for the seeds to infuse a liquid with their fragrance) and may be used liquid-based and often heat-treated recipes like stewed fruits or vanilla pudding. Sometimes, seeds are simply scraped and added to recipes like cookies prepped at room-temperature or whipped into things like vanilla buttercream. Usually this means you’re left with a scraped vanilla pod. Don’t throw it! Keep reading.

How to scrape a vanilla bean

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To remove the seeds from the vanilla bean, simply use a paring knife to slice the pod in half. Then, use the back of the knife to scrape the seeds away from the pod.

How to get the most out of your leftover vanilla beans

Make your own vanilla sugar

Vanilla is pricey, so before you throw the pod away, put that fragrant casing to use! Make homemade vanilla sugar by sticking your scraped vanilla pod into a jar or container of sugar and let it sit, sealed, for a week. The vanilla's flavor and aroma will infuse the sugar, which can be used in baking, stirred into coffee and tea, or sprinkled over French toast and crêpes.

Homemade vanilla sugar

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Make your own vanilla extract

You can make a quick homemade vanilla extract by simply caramelizing sugar and water and adding vanilla beans seeds and pods. This can then be stored and used as you would the store-bought extract.

Homemade vanilla extract

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If you have more time on your hands, you can also experiment with making your own vanilla extract by steeping your scraped out vanilla beans in a clear, odorless alcohol, like vodka, in an airtight glass jar or bottle for a minimum of 3 months. The liquid should darken, and you may keep topping it up with more alcohol and scraped vanilla beans as you use them. Keep it stored in a dark, cool place and use as you would store-bought vanilla extract.

Make a vanilla simple syrup or vanilla maple syrup

It’s easy to infuse a simple syrup, just add a scraped vanilla bean during the cooking process. It will add extra, fragrant notes to your homemade cocktails—try a ‘Dark n’ stormy’ with its complementary base of rum. Or, pop a scraped vanilla bean into a bottle of pure maple syrup and let infuse in the fridge for a week or so for a stellar pancake pour.

Simple syrup

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Infuse liquid-based recipes

Liquids will help extract the most flavor out of a scraped vanilla bean. Repurpose the bean in recipes with a liquid base like jam, vanilla ice cream, stewed fruit, panna cotta, or dulce de leche.

Vanilla ice cream

Vanilla ice cream

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The most common forms of vanilla on the market

Vanilla extract

Not to be confused with vanilla essence which is made via a synthetic compound, vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla seeds in alcohol. Some producers use additives—including the regular culprits like sugar or corn syrup, so as always, choose the one with shortest, most recognizable ingredients list. Extracts should be sold in dark colored bottles so the extract is not weakened by heat and light.

Chocolate whoopie pies with salted Swiss buttercream

Chocolate whoopie pies with salted Swiss buttercream

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Vanilla seed paste

Vanilla seed paste is a thickened mixture of vanilla extract and vanilla seeds—again, look for natural thickeners and minimal additives. Since it contains vanilla seeds, when using the paste, you will get the telltale brown vanilla flecks through your dish. Like vanilla extract, a teaspoon is equivalent to one vanilla pod.

Perfect pastry cream

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Vanilla essence

Vanilla was one of the first flavors to be synthetically replicated in the 1800s, making it easier to come by and providing a cost-effective alternative known as vanilla essence. Vanilla essence is made from the flavor compound ‘vanillin’ (the top note of vanilla, so to speak) which can be extracted from things like wood and clove oil, or quite offputtingly, petrochemical products. It is usually diffused into a carrier liquid like an odorless oil.

Most of the vanilla used to flavor the bulk of vanilla foodstuffs around the world comes from the ‘vanillin’ aroma compound, rather than true vanilla pod. A teaspoon is equivalent to one vanilla pod.

Vanilla sugar

Sold in little paper packages all across Europe, where it is destined to be sprinkled on baked desserts, vanilla sugar can of course be made by mixing vanilla bean or vanilla extract with sugar, however it is most commonly mass-produced with artificial vanilla essence.

Rainbow swirl cake

Rainbow swirl cake

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Alternatives to vanilla

While there is no true alternative to vanilla, there are various other ingredients that will impart a mild, complementary flavor to desserts.

Tonka beans

Fragrant tonka beans are now the most often-quoted replacement for vanilla bean. Open a jar of the tonka bean and you’ll likely whiff notes of almond, cherry or, many say, vanilla—and like true vanilla bean their scent is highly complex. Native to Central and South America where they have been used for centuries, the dried beans look a little like large, wrinkled almonds and can be grated into recipes to infuse their flavor.

Tonka beans are currently outlawed in the US because they, like cinnamon, contain toxic coumarin, and can be dangerous to the liver when consumed in large quantities. They are widely available throughout most of the world (and are illegally imported into the US) as tonka bean flavoring is, like most spices, used scantly in recipes, and it would take an extremely high intake of the bean to cause harm to the human body.

Almond extract

Almond extract can add a lovely base note to dishes where vanilla is regularly used. Simply use half the specified amount of vanilla when using almond, as it can easily overpower dishes. Familiarize yourself with the results in this recipe for Spanish-style fried custard which uses almond extract as a flavoring.

Spanish-style fried custard

Spanish-style fried custard

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Maple syrup

A tablespoon or so of maple syrup can impart a hint of its woody base and caramel notes to a recipe. If using as a flavoring, be sure to adjust the sugar content of a recipe accordingly, like in this maple and pecan shortbread which toys with the original recipe.

Maple-pecan shortbread

Maple-pecan shortbread

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Do you have any tips for getting the most out of vanilla bean? Or maybe you’ve got a vanilla alternative that we haven’t yet tried? Let us know in the comments!

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