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a bottle of vanilla extract and vanilla beans

illustration vanilla bean flowerGo for the Real Stuff

Vanilla beans are the seed pods of the vanilla orchid, a very delicate plant that must be pollinated by hand and typically blooms only one day per year. This labor-intensive process is one reason pure vanilla extract is often expensive. Imitation vanilla is usually more affordable, but it’s made entirely from synthetic ingredients and can’t match the complex taste profile of the real thing, which contains hundreds of flavor compounds.

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Those delicate flavor compounds are sensitive to heat and light, so look for brands sold in dark bottles to help protect the flavor. Be sure to check the ingredient list: High-quality extracts are made with just vanilla beans and alcohol; many low-quality brands include sugar, corn syrup, or other additives for taste and appearance. Thanks to its alcohol base, pure vanilla extract will keep practically indefinitely; store it in a cool, dark place.

illustration flame and sunTry the Varieties

Eighty percent of the world’s vanilla is grown in Madagascar; it’s a variety known for its high quality, versatility, and rich flavor. Mexican vanilla is somewhat woody and spicy, while Tahitian vanilla features more floral undertones. Vanilla beans are typically dried and cured in the sun — a process that takes more than a month. Indonesian vanilla beans are dried over fire, which expedites the process and gives the beans a slightly smoky flavor.

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Vanilla’s sweet, slightly caramelly notes can help balance warm spices or brighten fruity flavors. Use your vanilla extract to make your own granola, or mix up a batch of energy bars. Thirsty? Add some vanilla to our DIY Chai recipe. You can also use a bit of vanilla in some of our pancake recipes, or in any baked goods, as well as in marinades and even savory sauces.

This article originally appeared as “Vanilla Extract” in the January/February 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Kaelyn Riley

Kaelyn Riley is an Experience Life senior editor.

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