Fresh vanilla beans are a wonderful luxury in the pastry kitchen and should be used whenever possible over bottled extract. However, they can be really expensive and also a bit tedious to work with. As a professional baker, I honestly find the idea of using fresh vanilla beans in any sort of baked good absurd. This is why vanilla products are so useful and in many cases preferable to fresh beans. There are three main vanilla-based flavoring products: extract, paste and powder. You’ve probably heard of extract and paste, but what is vanilla powder? And more importantly, how do you use it? Let’s break it down.
Vanilla extract uses alcohol as a solvent to pull the aromas out of vanilla beans and varies widely in strength and quality. Vanilla paste usually includes extract that has been ground with vanilla beans, water and sometimes glycerin. It has a more powerful flavor and gives wonderful vanilla speckles to your baked goods. It also varies in quality, but Nielsen-Massey is an excellent brand to use.
Vanilla powder is pure, unadulterated vanilla bean, and lends so much flavor to anything you’re baking. Since extracts use alcohol as carriers for the aroma, most of the high heat of the baking process evaporates the alcohol (and the flavor along with it). Vanilla powder can hold its own under the high heat of the oven. It also doesn’t add additional liquid to a recipe, which in some cases will throw off a carefully balanced ratio.
Now, when it comes to powder, there are two types on the market. One is a whitish-beige substance, which is essentially vanilla-infused maltodextrin, dextrose or finely ground sucrose. This product is very popular in France as well as Mexico. It’s vanilla sugar, and it can be subbed in for sugar in recipes (or mixed into your morning coffee). The real prize, though, is pure ground dried vanilla beans. In addition to the seeds, the actual vanilla pod has a huge amount of flavor and aroma. Producers gently dehydrate the pods and then finely grind them. This black powder is pricey — about $15 to $20 per ounce — but a little goes a long way, and it packs the biggest punch in terms of vanilla flavor.
Any gourmet market should have pure vanilla powder available, and the ingredient list should be one item long: “finely ground vanilla beans.” However, if you go through a lot of fresh beans, I would recommend making your own. Save the scraped pods, dehydrate in a low oven or dehydrator, then grind in a coffee grinder. Even if you’ve have already infused the pod into dairy, you can rinse it off in water and dry it out and it will still have a ton of flavor. For such an expensive ingredient, it’s always wise to get the most bang for your buck.
As far as uses go, you can go overboard with it in buttercreams and never throw off the emulsion. Mix with rum, brown sugar and butter for a butterscotch sauce that will haunt your dreams. Generously mix with granulated sugar and use to coat churros, doughnuts or other fried items. Mixing it with sea salt makes a very versatile flavored salt equally at home over chocolate chip cookies or poached lobster. My current favorite way to use it is a bastardization of Christina Tosi’s legendary corn cookie made with masa harina. Vanilla and corn are a match made in heaven, and these cookies are innocuous little flavor bombs. Before baking, I roll the dough balls in the aforementioned vanilla sugar for a take on snickerdoodles we call masa-doodles.
Aaron Arabian is head baker and pastry chef at the Trading Post in Cloverdale, California.