By Susan Belsinger
(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)
“Plain vanilla is very much like that little black cocktail dress—always welcome, simply chic, so quietly dramatic.”
—Lisa Yockelson, from Baking by Flavor
Vanilla in the Kitchen
Although I am a chocolate lover, I have always adored the fragrance of vanilla. More than once as a child, I tasted vanilla extract straight from the bottle—knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it—I just could not resist, because it always smelled so good.
Back in my early adult years—and the beginning of my lifetime association with natural foods, herbs, and spices—I used vanilla beyond the kitchen. I found the aroma alluring, so why not use it like perfume? I would dab it behind my ears and on my pulse points. Occasionally, I would sprinkle cinnamon or nutmeg on my hands and run them through my hair. Ah, the innocence of youth—here I thought I smelled exotic and delicious (vanilla is known as an aphrodisiac)—and most people probably thought I smelled like a cinnamon bun!
The fragrance of pure vanilla extract and the essential oil is at once exotic, tropical, warm, and sensual—a combination of flowery and resinous, with a slight hint of bitterness. Due to its enticing scent, one would think it tastes sweet and flowery, but that is not the case. We associate vanilla as being sweet because it is used in every type of confection and sweet food from cereals, buns, and cakes to cookies, ice creams, and, of course, chocolate. Some vanilla beans have that exotic flowery scent, while others smell like bitter chocolate, winey, or even slightly smoky. I think they taste fruity—rather raisin-like—sometimes flowery, smooth, and slightly sweet and resinous.
Vanilla is everywhere today—we seem to take it for granted—and it isn’t just plain old vanilla anymore. It partners with many other flavors—not just desserts—but drinks, soups, sauces, and rice dishes; with seafood, from lobster with vanilla butter to seafood salad; as a glaze for poultry and pork; in barbecue sauces and in condiments from vinaigrettes to mustard…even mashed potatoes! It makes chocolate seductive, and works well with spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger—while subtly enhancing just about any baked good. It complements dairy products, coffee, and tea and brightens any fresh fruit bowl or cooked compote. Generally, vanilla highlights most foods without being too forward or overbearing.
Vanilla comes in many forms. Although vanilla pods are the source for pure vanilla extract, they aren’t commonly used by the home cook as often as the extract is used. The following list of vanilla products should help you know your beans better:
Whole Vanilla Beans
The largest producers of Vanilla planifolia are Madagascar and Mexico, and they are renowned for growing and curing the world’s best beans. Tahitian vanilla beans, V. tahitensis, are known for their intense perfume, though they are said to be less flavorful. When purchasing whole beans, they should smell fragrant, should be a dark chocolate brown, and somewhat pliable rather than hard and dried. Store them in a tightly closed jar in a cool dark place away from light, and they should last a few years. Do not freeze or refrigerate.
Pure Vanilla Extract
To extract the flavor from vanilla beans, alcohol must be used. It is usually done with a menstruum of alcohol and water (rather like making a tincture). An extract must be 35% alcohol—the label should read “Pure Vanilla Extract.” If it is less than this, it is considered a flavoring. Read your labels: imitation vanilla is often made from artificial vanillin rather than natural vanillin, which is usually synthetically made and is a by-product of the paper industry. Mexican vanilla extract can be very good if it is pure, but beware of inexpensive extracts; it should alert you to the fact that it is probably synthetic.
Vanilla Bean Paste
This thick brown paste is made from pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, sugar, water, and a natural thickener, gum tragacanth. The label states equivalents of 1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste equals 1 vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract. It is sweeter than vanilla extract and much thicker but can be used anywhere you would use vanilla extract. I use it in all kinds of baked goods from muffins and cakes to cookies and bars. It elevates oatmeal to another level when combined with fresh sliced peaches or dried blueberries or cherries and maple syrup.
Pure Vanilla Powder
This fine-textured powder is made from vanilla bean extractives and maltodextrin and is alcohol-free; it can be used in place of vanilla extract. Upon tasting it, it is slightly sweet and leaves a residue on the tongue. It can be used for dry mixtures and liquid- or color-sensitive products. You can sprinkle it on fruit or in your coffee, tea, or cocoa. I have used it in whipping cream, buttercream, and angel food cake.
Vanilla sugar has been made for centuries by placing a vanilla bean in sugar to give it a lovely vanilla perfume and flavor. Nowadays, vanilla sugar can be purchased commercially, but you can easily make your own.
For those willing to venture out from the grocery store offerings, below are some easy-to-make vanilla staple recipes.
Vanilla Bean Syrup
When I was a kid my favorite snowball flavor was Egg Custard. I could never figure out why it was called that—it tasted like vanilla to me. This syrup reminds me of that egg custard flavor. In fact, try it over shaved ice for a snowball. It also makes an excellent vanilla bean soda when mixed with sparkling water or served over ice cream for a vanilla ice cream soda. Use it with coffee to make a vanilla latte or as a sweetener in your hot or iced tea. It can be used in fruit salads, or drizzled over baked goods warm from the oven, like pound cake, scones, breads, or muffins. My kids used to object to the aesthetics of the little black seeds—I rather like them— so if they bother you, strain the syrup through fine cheesecloth or muslin to remove them. This can be made with maple syrup instead of sugar; however, the maple flavor will dominate.
(Makes a little more than 2 cups)
1 cup organic sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 vanilla bean
Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and cut it into thirds crosswise.
Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, add the vanilla bean pieces, and stir. Reduce heat, cover, and barely simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, covered.
Remove vanilla bean and reserve the pieces—they can be dried and used to make vanilla sugar. Pour the syrup into a bottle or jar and label. It will keep in the refrigerator for one month or can be frozen for about six months.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
Most pure vanilla extract is about 35% alcohol and contains water, sugar, and vanilla bean extractives. It is pretty easy to make your own version. It won’t taste just like the commercial brands—it probably won’t be quite as intense in vanilla flavor, but I find it very satisfactory. Vodka will allow the most vanilla bean flavor to come through. However, I often make mine with brandy or rum because I like the flavor of them. Remember, you only use 1 to 2 teaspoons in a recipe, so a little goes a long way. Try experimenting to see what you like best.
(Makes about 1 cup or an 8-ounce bottle, or halve the recipe for a smaller amount.)
2 or 3 vanilla beans
8 ounces of vodka, rum, or brandy
Cut the vanilla beans in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put them into a clean, dark glass, 8-ounce bottle. (I save my old vanilla extract bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the alcohol into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. Place in a cool place out of direct light.
The extract should be shaken once a day, at least for the first week. I do it whenever I go into the pantry and think about it. I usually uncap it and take a whiff—it is a form of kitchen aromatherapy for me, the wealth of the cook. You can use it after a week, but it is best after three or four weeks and gets better as it ages.
The longer it sits, the more intense the flavor. While commercial vanilla extract has the beans removed, I leave the beans in the bottle and as I use the extract, I top it off with more alcohol. Occasionally, I add another bean.
Once you have this on hand, you will begin to use it in many dishes, and you will wonder why you never had it before. I use organic apple cider, umeboshi plum, rice wine, or white wine vinegar, which are naturally made and good tasting. Do not make this with distilled vinegar. I often make fresh fruited vanilla vinegars, with peach or raspberry being my favorites. (Add 1 whole, ripe peach, peeled and sliced, or 1-pint raspberries to the jar when combining the vinegar and vanilla bean, and let macerate for at least three to four weeks. Strain, if desired.) I use vanilla-flavored vinegar in small amounts in vinaigrettes, dressings, fruit and vegetable salads, and sauces. I particularly love what it does to Waldorf salad.
(Makes 1 pint)
1 pint good-quality vinegar, preferably organic
1 whole vanilla bean
Cut the vanilla bean in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put the pieces into a clean, 1-pint bottle. (I save used vinegar or soy sauce bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the vinegar into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. I leave the bottle on the kitchen counter for about two weeks and shake it every day, twice a day. You can use it after a week, but it is best after 3 or 4 weeks.
The longer it sits, the better the flavor. As the vinegar gets used up, I top it off with a little more vinegar. I also add pieces of dried vanilla bean that I have already used.
Preparing Vanilla-Scented Sugar
Scented sugars can easily be made the same way that the Europeans have been making vanilla sugar for years. Placing a vanilla bean in a pint jar of sugar transforms the sugar into a pleasing, fragrant addition to beverages, cakes, cookies, custards, whipping cream, and all sorts of sweets. Sprinkle a little on fruit and toss it, or stir some into your tea or coffee cup. If you do a lot of baking, make this in larger quantities—say a quart or half-gallon jar— as you will find that you use it often.
(Makes 2 cups)
About 2 cups organic sugar
1 vanilla bean, cut into 3 or 4 pieces
To prepare scented sugar, use a clean pint jar with a tight-fitting lid. Fill the jar about one-third full with sugar, and place one or two pieces of vanilla bean in the sugar. Cover the vanilla bean with additional sugar so that the jar is two-thirds full, add another piece or two, and cover with sugar to fill the jar, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace. Shake the jar and place on a shelf in a cool, dark place.
The sugar will be ready to use in two to three weeks and will become more flavorful with age. As the sugar is consumed, add more plain sugar to take its place and it will take on the fragrance in the jar. I also add dried pieces of vanilla beans that I have already used for another purpose.
Since vanilla beans contain moisture, the sugar will absorb some of it and perhaps cake together, or even harden. If this happens, just use firm pressure to crumble it with either your hands or the back of a wooden spoon.
Hot Vanilla Milk
Make this milk when you can’t sleep and cocoa might keep you awake, or for those rare individuals who don’t like the flavor of chocolate. You can use sugar to sweeten, but I really like the maple syrup best; go light on the sweetener as you hardly need any. If you don’t have vanilla bean paste, use a generous teaspoon pure vanilla extract and 1 1/2 teaspoons sweetener, or add 2 tablespoons of Vanilla Syrup.
(Makes 1 cup, easily doubled)
1 cup milk (whole, 1 or 2 %, or oat or almond milk)
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup or organic sugar
In a small saucepan, bring the milk almost to a simmer over medium low heat. Stir in the vanilla bean paste and sweetener and blend until it is dissolved. If you are using extract, remove the warmed milk from the heat and add the extract and sweetener; stir to dissolve.
Taste the milk—if you have a sweet tooth, you may want to add another teaspoon of sweetener. Pour the vanilla milk into a mug. Inhale the vanilla aroma before you take your first sip. Relax and enjoy.
Vanilla Butter Cookies with Cacao Nibs
This is a simple butter cookie recipe (from not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes), though instead of using herbs, cacao bean nibs are added. They are further enhanced by using vanilla bean sugar as well as pure vanilla extract; the vanilla compliments the flavor of cacao. These cookies keep well in a tin for a week or two, and they also freeze well.
(Makes about 5 dozen cookies)
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup vanilla bean sugar
1 extra-large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cacao nibs
In the bowl of a food processor, cream the butter and sugar. When combined, beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Gradually mix in the flour and salt. Add cacao nibs and pulse just to combine.
The dough will be soft. Divide the dough into two parts. Using plastic wrap to shape the dough, roll each part into a cylinder about 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Chill the rolls for an hour, or place in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the plastic wrap, and slice the dough into 1/4-inch rounds. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets, and bake for about 10 minutes until the cookies are nice and brown. Remove the cookies from the baking sheets while they are hot and cool on racks.
Photo Credits: 1) Author overlooking Costa Rican forest (S. Belsinger); 2) Vanilla products (S. Belsinger); 3) Vanilla bean paste (C. Moore); 4) Bundle of dried vanilla pods (S. Belsinger); 5) Vanilla bean sugar (Pixaby); 6) Cocoa nibs (C. Moore).
Here is a link to a BBC article about vanilla grown in other parts of the world—you’ll see why it is so expensive and actually how dangerous it can be to cultivate this valuable crop nowadays. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/madagascar_vanillla
Conversation with Matthew Day for assistance reconstructing vanilla bean harvesting and curing information in Costa Rica.
Belsinger, Susan. 2005. not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes. Brookeville, Maryland: Herbspirit.
Gargiullo, Margaret, Magnuson, Barbara and Kimball, Larry. 2008. A Field Guide to Plants of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical Publications.
Laws, Bill. 2010. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books.
Rain, Patricia. 2004. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance. New York: Philip Lief Group, Inc.
Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.
Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com.