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Get to Know Vanilla: All Things Vanilla

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With its delightful aroma and rich flavor, vanilla is a staple in every baker’s pantry. From classic vanilla extract to the more specialized forms like vanilla paste and vanilla sugar, this versatile ingredient not only adds the most delicious flavor to all kinds of recipes but also brings a touch of sophistication to sweet and savory dishes.

The Best Soft Sugar Cookies

What is vanilla?

Vanilla is an orchid that produces bean pods, the foundation for all vanilla-based products. This tropical plant grows across multiple regions, with the best varieties coming from Madagascar, Tahiti and Mexico, and each has its own distinct and captivating flavors.

You can get vanilla in various forms, including whole beans, powder, extract, bean paste and sugar. Experiment with them all to find your favorites. For the best flavor, source your vanilla from a company that specializes in the very best quality vanilla products.

A stack of Sugar Cookie Bars with sprinkles.

Whole vanilla beans

Whole beans offer the most authentic and intense vanilla flavor. 

Vanilla beans, with thousands of flavorful seeds, are rich and aromatic and contain both the tiny seeds and the aromatic oils from the vanilla pod. Using whole vanilla beans requires a bit more effort, but the results are worth it. I love using them in a variety of recipes that will show off all of the tiny seeds, such as ice creams, custards, infused syrups, sauces, drinks and all types of baked goods like this rustic vanilla bean skillet cake.

When a recipe calls for a vanilla bean, you first need to remove the seeds by carefully slitting the vanilla bean pod in half lengthwise using a sharp paring knife. Then scrape the pod from top to bottom using the dull side of the blade to remove the seeds and immediately use the seeds in your recipe.

Different types of vanilla bean pods exist but look for Grade A vanilla beans when baking. Opt for Grade B beans with their lower moisture content when making vanilla extract.


A single whole vanilla bean equals about 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract. Depending on the size of the vanilla bean pod, you can expect ½ to 1 teaspoon of seeds. Use them wherever you want fresh and intense vanilla flavor.

“Vanilla and coffee together is the ultimate flavor combination for me. I make a vanilla simple syrup with vanilla beans that is delicious in my morning lattes, as well as cocktails. Using real vanilla beans over extract gives a richer, more robust pop of vanilla flavor.”
— Susannah Brinkley, Feast + West

Vanilla bean paste

No vanilla bean? No problem; use vanilla bean paste for the same flavor. Vanilla bean paste is the ideal ingredient when using vanilla bean seeds but don’t have a vanilla bean. This paste is made by blending ground vanilla beans with concentrated vanilla extract. The paste is smooth and velvety with tiny black vanilla seeds and the rich aroma of the vanilla pod.

The paste is a convenient alternative to costly vanilla bean pods and is perfect if you don’t need to use a whole bean in your recipe. You still get the great flavor and the visible vanilla specks.

When I know the seeds of the vanilla bean will be visible in a recipe, I like to use vanilla bean paste to see the seeds, like in this recipe for vanilla bean banana cake. You can add the paste to icing, custards and sauces for added visual appeal.


Substitute vanilla bean paste with an equal quantity of vanilla extract.

Vanilla extract

Vanilla extract is a popular choice for adding flavor when baking. It works well with various ingredients and adds a subtle floral and sweet taste to baked goods. The vanilla brings out the wonderful rich flavor when I bake oatmeal cookies. This versatility also makes it suitable for enhancing flavors in drinks and savory dishes.

To qualify as an extract, vanilla extracts must contain a minimum alcohol content of 35 percent, making any product with a lower alcohol content a flavoring. And remember if you’re making your own extract use Grade B pods because they contain less moisture.

Vanilla powder

Experience the flavor of vanilla with the convenience of vanilla powder. Vanilla powder is a dry, concentrated form of vanilla flavor made by grinding whole vanilla beans into a fine powder. Search for unsweetened vanilla powder to ensure you receive the finest taste and aromatic qualities.

Vanilla powder is a convenient alternative to using whole beans or vanilla extract. It’s perfect to use when you want vanilla flavor but can’t use the extract, such as on top of baked goods or when making a spice blend.

Vanilla powder is a great choice for those who prefer to avoid alcohol-based ingredients. It adds rich vanilla flavor but, unlike vanilla extract, is alcohol-free.  Try stirring vanilla powder into your yogurt, dusting your waffles or oatmeal with it or sprinkling it on top of your desserts for an instant infusion of vanilla flavor.


Use 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla powder instead of 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Vanilla sugar

Enhance your recipes by incorporating the subtle sweetness of vanilla sugar. Vanilla sugar is granulated sugar infused with vanilla beans, providing a delightful hint of vanilla flavor to your recipes. You can use it in any recipe that requires sugar.

You can make your own vanilla sugar by splitting open vanilla beans and placing them in a jar with white sugar. Seal the top and leave the jar to rest for a couple of weeks.

Use it any way you like; here are a few suggestions:

  • Add the sugar to baked goods recipes or top your unbaked quick bread for a sweet and flavorful topping.
  • Roll cookies in the vanilla sugar.
  • Use in ice creams, sauces, custards and whipped cream.
  • Sprinkle vanilla sugar on top of bread or pies before baking for a sweet vanilla-flavored topping.
  • Make a simple vanilla syrup by dissolving vanilla sugar in water to create a syrup to sweeten drinks like Italian sodas or iced coffees or drizzle over desserts.
  • Use vanilla sugar to rim cocktail or mocktail glasses for a sweet and aromatic touch.

“I use vanilla not only in my baking, where it adds to the depth of flavor, but also in some of my savory dishes. A little bit of vanilla extract in a pot of chili or beef stew, for example, or a vanilla bean with some butter when I roast fish in foil, really adds to the dish in ways you don’t expect. Try it!”

— Michelle Price, Honest and Truly

Discover the versatility of vanilla through rich vanilla paste, sweet vanilla sugar, whole vanilla beans and more. Find a manufacturer who grows naturally farmed, sustainably sourced, high-quality vanilla, allowing you to enhance flavors in desserts and beverages using these different types of vanilla, each with its own unique and irresistible appeal.

Jere Cassidy is the writer and recipe developer behind the blog One Hot Oven. A passion for all things food-related led her to culinary school to expand on her baking skills and now to share easy recipes for all home cooks and bakers of all skill levels. When not in the kitchen, Jere’ likes to travel far and wide to find delicious food.

This article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.

laura sampson

About Laura

Laura is on a mission to teach modern family oriented women how to make old-fashioned foods new again. A wife and mom of 3 boys, Laura understands the struggles of trying to serve a home-cooked meal each night. She provides recipes and cooking hacks for busy moms to create dishes they may think take more time or skill than they have to make. Read more...

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