Sure, you know vanilla. You have that little brown bottle that you bought at the supermarket in the spices aisle. We all know that. It goes in cookies and cakes – basic stuff. But let’s get a little more specific – because the quality of your ingredients does make a difference.
Vanilla as we know it is a seed pod – long, dark brown and sort of stringy. It was originally grown in Central America and, along with chocolate, was one of the exotic wonders that the Spanish explorers brought back to Europe. Can you imagine life without chocolate and vanilla?
Living in (relatively) close proximity to Mexico, I used to go across the border a couple of times a year to shop. One of the things I’d pick up was Mexican vanilla, since it was much cheaper than vanilla in the U.S. My husband didn’t like the flavor, though – he felt it tasted like coconut, so we stopped using it. Good thing, too – apparently a lot of cheap vanilla is mixed with an extract of the Tonka bean, which can be harmful to the liver.
More recently, many recipes of the recipes I’ve worked with have called for Madagascar vanilla which can be found at kitchen/cooking stores and some of the higher-end grocery stores. It may also be marketed as Bourbon Vanilla. You may also find Tahitian vanilla. Vanilla can be sold as pods, powder or in extract – where the vanilla is mixed with alcohol.
Why go to the trouble to buy these fancy vanillas? Or to buy the pods? Because most recipes don’t call for a lot of vanilla – usually no more than a teaspoon or two – and the better vanilla will give you much better flavor in that little amount. Just smell them – they’re amazing in their intensity – pure, spicy and delicate. If you buy pods – don’t throw them away once you’ve scraped them or cooked them. Tuck them into a jar with some sugar to make your own vanilla sugar – which is lovely on top of muffins or scones. You really can tell the difference in this higher-quality ingredient – it’s worth the price.