Ingredient Intelligence

Here’s Why Pro-Bakers Keep 3 Types of Vanilla on Hand At All Times (And You Should Too!)

updated Sep 1, 2022
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

There’s something that truly can’t compare to the warm, sweet scent of vanilla. Beloved in everything from ice cream to cakes, a vanilla is as much a scent as it is a powerful flavor. Even in chocolate recipes, vanilla acts as a secret ingredient that makes everything taste just a little bit better.

You’ll most often see vanilla extract called for in recipes, but there’s a whole world of vanilla products to explore. Vanilla sugar and vanilla syrup are little luxuries, but when it comes to baking with vanilla, there are three really great choices: pure vanilla extract, vanilla paste, and vanilla beans, which differ in price and intensity of flavor.

Here’s what you need to know about the differences between these three vanilla super ingredients and how to use them interchangeably in recipes.

Credit: Leela Cyd

Vanilla Beans

Let’s start with vanilla beans, while on the pricier side, are 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.

Vanilla beans are the primary ingredient in both vanilla extract and vanilla beans paste. In one, the beans infuse alcohol for a flavor extract, and in the other beans are extracted into a thick paste with tons of those delicious vanilla flecks.

The big perk to using vanilla beans is the way the thousands of little black dots fleck throughout your batter. For lighter, fluffier desserts like white cakes, cupcakes, or muffins I’ll always use a vanilla bean because the flavor is so intense and the visual component of being able to see the little black specks in the finished product is always satisfying.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Vanilla Extract

Many people rely on good old-fashioned vanilla extract for their baking needs largely because it’s easy to find and relatively affordable. Vanilla extract is made by macerating vanilla beans in a mixture of alcohol and water. When purchasing a bottle, avoid the imitation versions as they they tend to have a weaker, often tinny aftertaste. Splurge for the real stuff here or make your own.

Since vanilla extract is relatively cheap compared to both whole beans and vanilla bean paste, it is the most commonly used form of vanilla extract. You should use it in everything from cookies to brownies and you can even add a splash in your salad dressing!

Vanilla Bean Paste

What about vanilla paste? In many ways, vanilla paste could be thought of as a great in between 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 the teaspoon. I don’t find it all that much work to select, store, and use vanilla beans but some folks are less intimidated by the paste. I say whatever works and gets you excited about baking!

How to Substitute Vanilla Extract for Beans or Paste

As far as substitutions 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.


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