If you’re crazy about vanilla, you probably will like to try all forms of it and know the differences. After all, that is the only way to bring out the best flavour from your beans.
Before trying out everything, I chose to read as much as I could first. This is a summary of the differences in the characteristics, storage and usage of the four forms of real vanilla. I expect to develop this entry as time goes on.
Just to set terms straight from the get-go, commercial vanilla ingredients are commonly synthetically-flavoured vanilla essence (a dark brown fluid in a small bottle) and vanilla sugar (a fine white powder, with or without dots of vanilla bean seeds.)
The Vanilla Bean
I have started my real vanilla journey with fresh, organic, Fairtrade Madagascan bourbon vanilla beans.
In its fresh form, it is plump, oily/glistening on the outside. The bean feels soft and malleable between fingers. The aroma is strong, earthy and much more complex than the synthetic vanillin in commercial ingredients.
Vanilla beans should be stored in an airtight jar, in a cool dark cupboard away from direct sunlight. Aired the jar every few weeks. Do not store vanilla in the fridge (which encourages mold) or the freezer (may lead to loss of flavour).
The Vanilla Extract
Commonly extracted by alcohol-infusion, this is one of the best way to preserve the vanilla flavour for an infinite length of time. I have just made a small bottle at home in late Oct 2013 and will elaborate more in 6 months.
The Vanilla Powder
My first vanilla powder is an organic Madagascan bourbon vanilla powder, grounded from whole beans. The 10g jar is equivalent to 6-7 whole beans. The packaging said that 1 tsp powder = about 1 whole vanilla bean. 1/4 tsp – 1/2 tsp is equivalent to 1 tsp commercial vanilla sugar.
I have had more experience with vanilla essence before which is a one-to-one substitute for commercial vanilla sugar. When I started with this vanilla powder, I found that often 1/4 tsp would suffice. I also add a pinch of it to recipes that do not call for vanilla, to help round off the flavour.
The Vanilla Sugar
Someone gave me a half-used package of commercial (“Dansukker” brand) vanilla sugar before. Though I am not well-acquainted, I think this works well in baking.
I have just made a small jar of real vanilla sugar and cannot resist smelling it now and then. That is something I wouldn’t do with the commercial version, because it is highly-concentrated, sharp and powdery. The round, earthy tones are missing from the latter.
If 1 vanilla bean = 1 tsp vanilla powder = 1 tsp commercial vanilla sugar, then I’m pretty sure that there is not enough flavour in 1 tsp of my homemade vanilla sugar! According to my recipe, there is only 1/100th of a bean in the same measure of vanilla sugar. Would making your own vanilla sugar fresh at home boost the flavour enough to make up for it? I don’t think so.
I came across another recipe (more accurately, another vanilla-sugar proportion). This concentrated version adds 3 beans to every 100 g sugar, or 6 times the number of beans in my recipe. Worth a try!
How does one substitute commercial vanilla essence/sugar with real vanilla bean/sugar? It depends on your personal preferences, the bean quality/size and even on the food you will make. As discussed in the last section, homemade vanilla sugar has to be pretty pretty concentrated to substitute for any commercial vanilla ingredient!
The vanilla bean itself is in its original concentrated form. One can scrap out half a bean (at least 6-7cm) and use the caviar to substitute for 3 tbsp of vanilla essence/commercial vanilla sugar. In other words, the caviar from as little as 2cm of vanilla bean is needed in your regular cake recipe! Be aware that not all beans are equal, some are thicker (more seeds) than others. Unlike saffron, it is okay to err on the side of too much vanilla . Try it out . Experience is your best guide!
I am toying with the idea of making my own vanilla powder from the harvest shells, which would carry no less flavour and aroma than the caviar they held. You too, may be inspired to do so from my tutorial on homemade vanilla sugar!
Now you can buy organic and Fair Trade Madagascan bourbon vanilla beans and experience them for yourself.