How To

What's the Difference Between Vanilla Bean and Vanilla Extract?

I'm guessing, even if you're not an avid baker, hidden somewhere in your cabinet there is a bottle of vanilla extract. This flavorful and fragrant ingredient helps bring everything from cakes to chocolate chip cookies to life. But what is vanilla extract? And should you be using that bottle or a bean pod instead? Vanilla extract and vanilla bean are very alike, but one may just help you bring your baking to the next level.

What Is Vanilla?

Vanilla beans are actually the pods that grow on a vine-like vanilla orchid plant. These vines grow up trees and produce beautiful flowers along with these delicious pods. Vanilla orchids can only be grown 10-20 degrees North or South of the equator. Therefore, most plants are grown in Madagascar, Mexico, Indonesia, and Tahiti. That's quite the picky plant!

A vanilla bean starts as a green growth from the orchid plant. When ripe, the bean changes into a waxy dark brown pod that's filled with thousands of tiny little specks. These specks hold the immense flavor we're all so addicted to.

While these pods can be purchased either whole or scraped clean, many prefer to buy a cheaper version, called vanilla extract. Vanilla extract consists of the specks from the bean that have been macerated with alcohol and water. While extract can work great in recipes, be sure to avoid the imitation varieties which may be watered down.

What Is Vanilla Used For?

While vanilla is most popularly used for baking, in recipes such as vanilla bean cupcakes or funfetti chocolate chip cookies, it also has more benefits than just being tasty. Vanilla bean has been known to lower cholesterol levels, help alleviate arthritis, and assist with coughs and other respiratory problems. Cosmetically, vanilla helps strengthen hair and even clear up acne. I guess these beans are good for a lot more than just ice cream!

#SpoonTip: 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract is equal to 2 inches of scraped vanilla bean. In other words, one vanilla bean equates to around 3 teaspoons of extract. 

Should I Use Vanilla Bean or Vanilla Extract?

Ultimately, vanilla extract is the same as a vanilla bean with just a few added ingredients. The main reason why vanilla extract is a more common ingredient is due to price. Whole vanilla beans tend to be pricey, whereas extract is more affordable and sold in larger amounts. 

Plus, when you use pure vanilla bean, those gorgeous little brown flecks can be seen in your cooking. They not only provide immense flavor but also add a unique sophistication to any dessert.

If you decide to use vanilla bean, there are four types to choose from, depending on the region in which they were grown. Refer to this guide to make the most of your vanilla experience.

No matter which form of vanilla you choose to use, it is guaranteed that a splash of the good stuff will bring your baking to the next level. And who knows, your health might actually benefit from it as well. Does that mean cookies are a health food? I'm going to go with yes.