I love the aroma and flavour of vanilla, so I always keep the old dried pods in an open jar in the pantry…it gives a subtle hint of vanilla each time I open the door. We use lots of vanilla beans and the paste in cooking classes. It is a good indication of the passion of the cook when you see the tiny black seeds in the panna cotta, crème brûlée, ice cream or custard!
There are now many ways you can purchase vanilla; you can buy it as the bean pod, the paste, extract, natural essence and imitation essence. In class, people often ask about the differences between these forms of vanilla, so here are a few….
Vanilla Bean is the cured pod of a climbing orchid plant which is harvested while immature so the pod does not burst. Madagascar and Indonesia grow the majority of the world’s vanilla beans; other areas include those within 20 degrees north and south of the Equator in the tropical regions of the world.
When the vanilla bean is picked, it is like a very slim green banana. It is only after the bean has been cured and matured that it gains the distinctive look and vanilla aroma that we all know so well. Top quality beans tend to be long, fleshy, supple, very dark brown/black in colour, strongly aromatic, somewhat oily, and free from scars and blemishes. Lower quality beans are shorter and thinner, tend to be hard and dry, and are mid-brown to reddish brown in colour.
To use the bean, split it down the centre and scrape the seeds out. They are quite sticky, so be sure to use all the seeds you scrape out; add both the bean and the seeds when infusing creams and milks for custards, ice creams, milk puddings and cake mixtures. The bean may be rinsed, well dried and used several times. A good final resting place for the bean is to store it in the sugar canister, where it scents the sugar – so you have your own vanilla sugar.
Vanilla Bean Paste is the easy way to achieve real vanilla flavour without the scraping of the beans. It contains vanilla bean including the seeds! It is vanilla beans in a jar, 1 teaspoon = 1 whole cured vanilla bean. It is shelf stable, so lasts a long time, and contains 100% natural ingredients. It is quickly becoming the preferred option for most chefs. It is convenient and a cost effective way to deliver real vanilla into panna cottas, brûlées, ice cream, cream and custards.
Vanilla Extract: chef’s strength! Vanilla extract is a concentrate made from real vanilla beans and so is used when the recipe requires a more intense vanilla flavour and aroma. The flavour is extracted from the vanilla bean with no or very low alcohol. It is excellent for baking at very high temperatures.
Natural Vanilla Essence has no additives, it is 100% vanilla bean; the essence is extracted from the vanilla bean using a technique based on alcohol and water to release the flavour.
Imitation Vanilla Essence is the product i do not favour at all. It is synthetic vanilla flavouring and so it is cheaper to buy. It can be used in baked cakes and biscuits.