Let’s take a closer look at every baker’s favorite flavor balancer, as we figure out the difference between vanilla extract vs vanilla paste vs vanilla beans.
Almost all baking recipes require vanilla. It’s subtle, sweet, and rounds out the flavor of most baked goods. Most of the time, recipes ask for vanilla extract, but did you know you have other options? You do! And today, I’ll be explaining the difference between vanilla extract vs vanilla paste vs vanilla beans.
I feel like this goes without saying, but PASTRY NERD ALERT!
First, a little background on the baking world’s most popular flavor. Vanilla comes from the vanilla orchid, which is native to Mexico. Although it is a stunning flower, it’s super high-maintenance. Vanilla orchids only grow about 20 degrees out from the equator, can only be naturally pollinated by certain species of bees and hummingbirds native to Mexico, and are only open for pollination for less than 24 hours.
Here’s the kicker. In order to mass produce vanilla products, you can’t rely on mother nature, so each vanilla orchid must be hand pollenated. Growing, pollenating, and processing vanilla is work, which is why it’s the second most expensive spice after saffron.
Hopefully, now you understand why buying quality vanilla is a little pricey. To make sure you put your money to good use, let’s look at how different vanilla products stack up against each other.
A tried and true favorite. Vanilla extract is by far the most popular vanilla option in the U.S. It’s widely available, versatile, and affordable. A 4 ounce bottle of Nielsen Massey (a higher quality brand) Vanilla Extract will run you $10.95. There are less expensive options at the grocery store too. I picked up the bottle above at my local grocery store for about $8.
Vanilla extract is made by macerating whole vanilla beans in alcohol and water. The result is a fragrant, deep chestnut liquid that has the same thickness as water. It’s a perfect all purpose vanilla.
I only discovered vanilla paste after I got this bottle as a present last Christmas. I didn’t read the label and just assumed it was regular ole vanilla extract. When I went to use it, I found a syrupy liquid packed with specks of vanilla bean.
Vanilla paste is made by scraping the beans out of a vanilla pod and mixing them into a slightly thick alcohol-sugar-water syrup. A 4 ounce bottle of Nielsen Massey Vanilla Paste costs $12.95, so it’s slightly more expensive than the extract. On the other hand, it’s faster and less expensive than scraping individual vanilla beans.
Personally, I’m in love with vanilla paste. It smells heavenly, can be substituted exactly for vanilla extract, and gives you beautiful vanilla bean specks. It’s a perfect option for ice cream, creme brûlée, and I even use it in my pound cake. If you’ll be able to see the tiny vanilla dots in your finished product, then I would go with vanilla paste over vanilla extract every time.
Finally, we come to the source of it all, the vanilla bean. A long, waxy, blackish-brown, pod that when cut opened reveals many tiny beans. They look like small caviar, so you know it’s fancy!
Whole vanilla beans are the priciest option. Two Nielsen Massey pods are $9.95. Each bean is about a tablespoon, so a two pod package is only 2 tablespoon. In comparison, a 4 ounce bottle of extract or paste gets you 8 tablespoons for only a few dollars more. However, if you want the speckled look without the syrup (or you’re a hard core purist), go for the vanilla beans.
I do want to mention that these aren’t your only vanilla options. There are vanilla powders and vanilla sugar as well. However, vanilla powder is largely unavailable to the average baker (again in the U.S.), and vanilla sugar isn’t an exact substitute for vanilla extract.
Now you know more about vanilla than you probably ever wanted to, but when you use it in almost every baking recipe, it’s a good ingredient to know a lot about.