One of the challenges of running a responsible business is finding ingredients that not only taste good but are also made in a way that is good for the earth and the people who produce the ingredients and work with them. Vanilla is particularly challenging in this respect. Like chocolate, it is a high-priced crop that changes hands many times before it reaches the consumer, making it difficult to get straight answers about how it was produced. During the course of writing this book, we began to source our vanilla from Madécasse, a Madagascar-based company committed not just to growing vanilla and chocolate that are of high quality but also to doing it in a sustainable manner. They pay farmers fair wages and centralize production in the same country where the ingredients are grown. We’re so happy to support a company that not only sells products that taste amazing but is also redefining an entire industry for the better.
Types of Vanilla
Vanilla beans are the fruit of a climbing orchid vine native to Mexico but are now grown in tropical regions around the world. Each flower produces a single vanilla bean, and for commercial production, each flower must be pollinated by hand. As a result, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world.
Vanilla is available in several different forms, and the recipe or technique you’re using will dictate which form is most appropriate.
Vanilla beans are the most basic, unprocessed form of vanilla. Both the pod and the seeds inside are full of flavor, and the best way to coax it out is to split the bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and steep the seeds and bean in warm liquid. Pure vanilla extract, on the other hand, offers vanilla flavor in liquid form, which is useful for recipes where infusing vanilla beans into liquid is not an option.
These ingredients don’t necessarily need to be used separately. In recipes where we want the maximum vanilla flavor possible (such as our vanilla ice cream), we use both vanilla beans and extract. This gives us the pronounced yet complex flavor profile that we want.
Aside from its physical form, you may have additional choices when buying vanilla. Just as terroir is considered an important factor that influences how a wine tastes, the place of origin is also considered a significant factor in the character of vanilla. (The specific variety of vanilla grown, the maturity of the beans at harvest, and the method of processing method also have some impact, but origin is the most influential variable on flavor.)
Tahitian vanilla is fruity and has an almost licorice-like flavor. Note, however, that some producers use the word “Tahitian” to describe a type of vanilla plant even if it is grown outside Tahiti, so be sure to look carefully at the label to determine the true country of origin.
Madagascar produces vanilla that is creamy and mellow in flavor.
Mexican vanilla is slightly spicy and an especially good complement to chocolate.
If you can find vanilla beans or extract from several different origins, buy a few different ones and experiment with them to find your favorite. You may find that some are especially well suited to ice cream or sauces, while others really shine in cookies or cakes.
Buying and Using Vanilla Beans
More than likely, it will be most practical for you to buy whatever vanilla beans are available at your local grocery store (or specialty baking store, if you have one nearby). If that’s the case, buy vanilla beans only as you need them; they have a tendency to dry out and become more difficult to use with age (unless you store them in neutral spirits, as described below).
If you see a lot of vanilla beans in your future, though, you may want to buy them in bulk through an online retailer. You’ll have more options as to the origin and varietal of the beans (each of which has a unique flavor), the beans will be fresher, and you’ll spend a lot less per bean. A few of these companies are listed in the Sources section (page 210).
If you do buy in bulk, store the beans submerged in a neutral spirit (such as vodka) in the refrigerator. This will not only extend their shelf life nearly indefinitely, but the beans will also infuse into the spirit, and you’ll be producing your very own homemade vanilla extract.
Plump beans are much easier to work with and will yield the maximum flavor. If a vanilla bean has become dry and brittle, you can soften it by soaking it in a shallow bowl of warm water for 15 or 20 minutes.
Most recipes will instruct you to scrape the seeds from the pod before adding them both to the infusing liquid. This helps distribute the seeds evenly through the liquid and extracts the flavor more thoroughly.
After infusing, the pods are usually strained out and the tiny specklike seeds are left remaining in the liquid. Whatever you do, don’t toss out those pods! They still have plenty of flavor left in them and can be reused in one of several different ways. Rinse them off and let them dry completely (you can speed the process by spreading them on a baking sheet and baking them at 250°F for 30 to 40 minutes). Then do one of the following:
Save the pods for later use in another recipe. To store them, put the pods in a jar with enough vodka or other neutral spirit to cover and store at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
Make vanilla sugar or salt. Combine the dried beans with sugar or salt in a food processor or blender and pulse until the beans are finely ground. Use anytime you’d like to add a subtle vanilla flavor to a recipe. The salt is wonderful sprinkled over freshly steamed fish, and the sugar is great in any dessert recipe!
Buying and Using Pure Vanilla Extract
The most important thing to know about vanilla extract is the difference between “vanilla flavoring” and pure vanilla extract. In a single vanilla bean there are more than two hundred different molecular compounds, all of which contribute to the incredibly complex flavor. Pure vanilla extract is made from actual vanilla beans, so the extract represents the full spectrum of vanilla flavor. On the other hand, “vanilla flavoring” consists of a sole flavor molecule, vanillin, which is derived from wood pulp. It tastes vanilla-ish, but it doesn’t begin to represent the heady complexity of an actual vanilla bean. You will pay slightly more for pure vanilla extract, but it will make a significant difference in the final product. Be sure to watch out for blends that use a combination of real vanilla extract and vanillin—they are no substitute for the 100 percent real thing.
Most vanilla extract is alcohol-based, which gives it a nearly infinite shelf life. Just be sure to store it in a cool, dark place away from sunlight and heat.
Although it is easy to blend into batters and sauces, the flavor of vanilla extract has a tendency to dissipate and diminish, especially in the presence of heat. This is why we always add vanilla extract at the last possible stage of a recipe. For instance, when making our vanilla ice cream, we add the extract to the base just before it goes into the ice cream machine.
Vanilla Ice Cream
Makes about 1 quart
It always makes us happy when people get a scoop of our vanilla ice cream. Sure, it may not be quite as exciting as some of our other flavors, but to us vanilla is the true litmus test of a great ice cream maker. Vanilla gives you a pure sense of the quality of ingredients—not just of the vanilla itself, but also of the dairy products and eggs—as well as the skill of the ice cream maker.
We use two kinds of vanilla in this recipe, both vanilla bean and pure extract, for an intense vanilla flavor. This ice cream is the ideal canvas for any type of mix-ins you want to use, from chopped nuts, cookies, or candies to swirled-in sauces. Or keep it simple and enjoy the pure floral vanilla flavor!
At a Glance
Technique: Ice cream (page 12)
Special equipment: Ice cream machine
Infusing and Chilling time: 30 minutes, plus 2 hours or overnight
Shelf life: 1 week
13/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup 1% or 2% milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 vanilla bean
5 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Infuse the milk/cream
1. In a heavy nonreactive saucepan, stir together the cream, milk, half of the sugar (1⁄4 cup), and the salt. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and use the knife to carefully scrape the seeds from the bean. Add the seeds and the split bean to the pan.
2. Put the pan over medium-high heat. When the mixture just begins to bubble around the edges, remove from the heat, cover the pan, and let steep for about 30 minutes.
Make the base
3. In a medium heatproof bowl, whisk the yolks just to break them up, then whisk in the remaining sugar (1⁄4 cup) until smooth. Set aside.
4. Uncover the cream mixture and put the pan over medium-high heat. When the mixture approaches a bare simmer, reduce the heat to medium.
5. Carefully scoop out about 1⁄2 cup of the hot cream mixture and, whisking the eggs constantly, add the cream to the bowl with the egg yolks. Repeat, adding another 1⁄2 cup of the hot cream to the bowl with the egg yolks. Using a heatproof rubber spatula, stir the cream in the saucepan as you slowly pour the egg-and-cream mixture from the bowl into the pan.
6. Cook the mixture carefully over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it is thickened, coats the back of a spatula or wooden spoon, and holds a clear path when you run your finger across the spatula, 1 to 2 minutes longer.
7. Strain the base through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean container. Set the container into an ice-water bath, wash your spatula, and stir occasionally until the base is cool. Remove from the ice-water bath, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate the base for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Freeze the ice cream
8. Add the vanilla extract to the base and stir until blended.
9. Freeze in your ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. While the ice cream is churning, put the container you’ll use to store the ice cream into the freezer. Enjoy right away or, for a firmer ice cream, transfer to the chilled container and freeze for at least 4 hours.