With a distinct aroma that sweetly fills the air, vanilla is one of the most used flavorings found in pastries, cakes, cookies, candy, and other desserts. At one point in time, vanilla was so rare and priceless that only royalty had access to the flavoring. Today, nearly almost every kitchen uses the flavor in some form. While there are plenty of imitations on the market, the cheaper man-made vanilla extract cannot compare to pure vanilla. If you are interested in baking a masterpiece or creating something sweet in the kitchen, vanilla is certainly a baking essential.
Vanilla extract comes from vanilla pods (or beans). There are three common types that you may encounter: Madagascar or Bourbon- Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian. Vanilla is the fruit of a thick green orchid vine that comes from regions, such as the islands of Madagascar and regions in the Indian Ocean. The vine also grows wildly in Mexico – producing a thicker, darker bean with a strong flavor. Tahitian vanilla beans are the thickest and are nearly black in color.
The green pods of the vine are picked by hand in an unripened state and undergo a fermentation process that can take between two to six months. The beans turn into a dark brown color as they age. The vanilla pods are then dried and cured to enhance their flavor.
Vanilla is sold in many different forms, including the very popular extract, pods (beans), powdered, essence and vanilla sugar. The vanilla extract often used in the kitchen is made by steeping the vanilla beans in an alcohol and water solution for several months. Some manufacturers will add sugar to produce a clear dark liquid with a rich flavor.
Make Your Own Vanilla Extract
To experience the flavor of fresh vanilla extract, you can make your own by cutting one whole vanilla bean in half – lengthwise. Place the vanilla bean in ¾ cup of vodka, which equals out to 180 milliliters. Cover the contents tightly and let steep for six months before using.
When cooking, keep in mind that one whole vanilla bean equals two to three teaspoons of vanilla extract.