Ask the experts: vanilla in all its glorious forms
Our food experts Fran Abdallaoui and Pamela Clark demystify vanilla and its many forms.
Treasured for centuries as a nerve stimulant, an aphrodisiac and a scent, vanilla is one of the world’s universally loved and versatile flavours. Vanilla beans are the long pod-like fruit of the vanilla planifolia (fragrans) orchid, the only orchid producing an edible product. On the vine, vanilla beans look like healthy green beans; when picked, they are flavourless, requiring a lengthy curing process to metamorphose into the slightly shrivelled, intoxicatingly pungent black pod with the volatile seeds bursting with that floral-sweet taste we know as vanilla. It is one of the world’s most popular dessert flavourings, but chefs are now also using it to give individuality to savoury sauces and dressings.
Look for moist and supple pods which are dark brown to black in colour. They should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. To extract the seeds from the vanilla bean, split the pod lengthways, then scrape out the seeds using the point of a knife. Vanilla pods are perfect in poached fruit, creamy desserts, ice-creams and some savoury sauces. And never discard the de-seeded pod, as you can create vanilla sugar by storing the scraped pods in a canister of caster sugar.
Vanilla processing involves extracting the flavour by soaking finely chopped, cured vanilla beans in alcohol and water. Vanilla essence is an economical and traditional mild vanilla flavour suitable for drinks and everyday baking, such as pancakes, scones or biscuits.
Several types are available – some single origin, some containing seeds, or thickened to a syrupy consistency with the addition of glucose or glycerine. Extracts are around two to three times the strength of essence. These are more suited to baking, as they contain little alcohol and can withstand high temperatures. Extracts are more pungent than essence and are perfect for whipped cream, cheesecakes or icings.
Vanilla bean paste
Prized for its intensity, the paste provides true vanilla flavour to desserts and baking with the convenience of spooning it from the jar. One teaspoon of paste is the equivalent of one scraped vanilla bean. Use in any recipe where a vanilla pod is called for, especially in panna cotta, crème brûlée or custard desserts.
Vanilla bean powder
Made from ground vanilla beans, the powder is free from sugar and alcohol. Use in drinks, chocolate making or meringues. Two grams is the equivalent flavour to one vanilla bean.
1 5 3 4 6 1. Vanilla extract with seeds. 2. Vanilla bean pods. 3. Vanilla essence. 4. Vanilla bean powder. 5. Vanilla extract. 6. Vanilla bean paste. 2
Split the pod lengthways, then use a sharp knife to scrape out the seeds.