Vanilla: A Pantry Staple

by Laura on February 27, 2012

in From the Experts


Vanilla extract is an essential spice that can be found in nearly everyone’s pantry. Vanilla adds flavor, while complementing and enhancing other flavors, making it uniquely suited for a wide variety of recipes from cookies, cakes, and pastries to salad dressings, tomato sauce, and marinades. This month, Family Eats talks with Beth Nielsen, chief culinary officer of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, to learn more about how to use and choose this delicious pantry staple. For some tasty recipes, visit the Nielsen-Massey website, or add The Century of Flavor to your cookbook collection.

Family Eats: The price of vanilla extract at the market can vary greatly. Why is there such a price difference? And, how can I determine the quality of the vanilla extract?

Beth Nielsen: As with any product, there are various grades of raw materials and manufacturing qualities, which affect the final cost to produce it. Typically, single origin extracts are of a higher quality.  Also, companies using a cold-extraction process* like we do, will likely produce a higher quality vanilla with more flavor complexity.

It is necessary to use alcohol to remove the flavoring from the beans. Most manufacturers recirculate alcohol and water over the beans under varying degrees of heat and/or pressure. This method is quick and only last 3-5 days, but Nielsen-Massey believes that heat and pressure are detrimental to the process, so instead uses a proprietary cold extraction process

FE: What is the difference in flavor profile of vanilla from different origins? Blends versus single origin, should it matter to the consumer?

BN: Each vanilla has distinct properties which function in different ways depending on the ingredients used and the type of application. Here are a few suggestions as to which profile to use with certain recipes:

Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract is a sweet, creamy, mellow Pure Vanilla that is an excellent ingredient for general cooking and baking.

Mexican Pure Vanilla Extract is a vanilla with a deep, spicy character that complements not only chocolate, but cinnamon, cloves and other warm spices, citrus fruits and even unexpected flavors such as those of chile peppers and tomatoes where it can smooth out the heat and acidity. Try it in cookies, cakes and frozen desserts, barbecue and spaghetti sauces, and salsas.

Tahitian Pure Vanilla Extract has a delicate flavor and is susceptible to the rigors of heat. In application, Tahitian vanilla is best used in products that are not subjected to high heat, such as in refrigerated and frozen desserts, pastry creams, fruit pies and sauces, smoothies and shakes, and puddings and custards.

Further, a single origin vanilla provides a true flavor profile of that type of bean, which can be used in specific recipes complementing and enhancing the other ingredients.

FE: When is it best to use beans over extract? And, how can we determine their freshness?

BN: It is best to use beans whenever the look of vanilla seeds is desired. The beans should be stored in an airtight container away from direct heat and sunlight. They can be stored loose in this container. If exposed to air too much the beans will dry out and lose the essential oils and flavor. They should not be refrigerated or frozen as this could promote the growth of mold due to the moisture content.

FE: For consumers who seek organic ingredients whenever possible, is it essential to buy organic vanilla extract?

BN: If the consumer follows a strict organic diet, it would be best to use our organic beans and extract, both of which are certified by Quality Assurance International.

FE: When should I use a vanilla paste?

BN: Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste is made with our Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract with the addition of real seeds from the vanilla pod, combined in a slightly viscous base. It is used whenever the distinctive look of vanilla seeds is desired. Pure Vanilla Bean Paste is used measure for measure the same as Pure Vanilla Extract or to replace whole vanilla beans in recipes.

FE: How versatile is vanilla when cooking or baking?

Vanilla is a flavor enhancer that can be used in almost any cooking or baking application from cocktails and cookies to filet mignon and barbeque ribs.  It can cut the acidity of tomatoes in pasta sauces and chili without adding sugar for this effect (the same is true with homemade salad dressings).



FE: What are your favorite tips and/or ways to use vanilla.

BN: Vanilla can be used for more than just culinary applications. Nielsen-Massey originally focused on the manufacturing of aromas for cleaning chemicals. I sometimes saturate a cotton ball in vanilla and put it in my vacuum bag. This way the room smells like vanilla after I’m done vacuuming. I also make a vanilla body scrub with our Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Sugar.

Anytime I make fish or chicken on the grill, I apply our Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste with a pastry brush.  The paste caramelizes slightly forming a thin shell around the protein and seals in the moisture.  The bean specks are a beautiful aesthetic, and the hint of vanilla is wonderful.

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