What is Vanilla, Anyway? All the Important Information About Vanilla Beans and Vanilla Extract

I bake a lot, which means I’m constantly measuring out 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. You name it, I bake it. I bake it, I add vanilla to it. Chocolate chip cookies, yellow cakes, chocolate pudding, and baked oatmeal are all bound by their common ingredient: eggs! But also, vanilla!

Even though I make my way through jars of extract every year, it wasn’t until recently that I paused to think, What is vanilla, anyway? (I was distracted, ok?) If you, too, have ever wondered where vanilla comes from (hint: vanilla beans aren’t beans at all) or why some vanilla extracts are deemed imitators, we’ve got the answers for you. Let’s begin:

Okay, tell me: What is vanilla?

Not a bean, that’s what! A vanilla “bean” is actually the fruit of orchids in the genus Vanilla. Vanilla extract is made by soaking said beans in an alcohol solution to “extract” (get it?) all of their flavorful compounds.

And why are vanilla beans so pricey?!

Those vanilla orchids only grow in a very small subsection of the world, with Madagascar producing a whopping 80%. Plus, every step of the labor-intensive harvesting process is done by hand! For all of these reasons, the demand greatly exceeds the supply, hence vanilla’s standing as the world’s second most expensive spice (around $270/lb.), behind saffron.

Won’t give you the cute speckles; will give you the big flavor. 

Photo by Chelsie Craig

In that case, can I just use extract instead?

We get it. You’re tempted to swap out a pricey vanilla bean for the more economical vanilla extract. But sometimes the seeds are worth it. Here’s how to decide:

  • Splurge: when vanilla is the sole flavor and those signature flecks will be in the spotlight (think pudding, ice cream, crème brûlée, shortbread), buy the bean or use paste
  • Skip: when vanilla is a backdrop to the star elements (spice cookies, chocolate cake, fruit pie filling), go with extract

Okay, I’m ready to get some vanilla. What am I looking for?

Good-quality whole beans will be plump, shiny, and moist. Extract should contain only vanilla beans, alcohol, and water, with no added sugar or artificial colors or flavors. Our Test Kitchen loves the incredibly fragrant and responsibly-harvested products from Heilala Vanilla, which come from the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific.

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