Versatile Vanilla

Versatile Vanilla

Savory Or Sweet, It’S A Pantry Superstar

Vanilla, that most versatile of beans, is having a moment. “It’s almost limitless in its scent and flavor notes,” says J.R. Rigley, president of The Watkins Co., a family-owned spice-and-extracts company in Winona, Minn., of this versatile bean sourced mostly from Madagascar.

Since it’s available in an extract, paste, powder, or the bean itself, there are limitless ways to use it in cooking or baking, though the way you use vanilla definitely depends on the recipe. “A paste offers a thicker consistency than a liquid,” Rigley says. “If you’re making a savory chicken dish, for example, a paste will embrace the meat better.”

Vanilla comes in lots of forms—from the bean itself to an extract—and it can be used in a range of foods both savory and sweet
Vanilla comes in lots of forms—from the bean itself to an extract—and it can be used in a range of foods both savory and sweet.

Charlotte Rutledge, the test-kitchen manager at King Arthur Baking Co. in Norwich, Vt., thinks of vanilla as a necessary cooking staple to keep in the pantry, one that’s just as important as salt, pepper, and sugar.

“Vanilla is one of the best ways to enhance the flavor of anything you’re cooking or baking,” she says. And while vanilla plays a role in nearly every baked good, it has just as much of a place in savory cooking. Consider using vanilla to add flavor to a brown butter vinaigrette that you use in a roasted vegetable salad or a squash dish.

Vanilla can be an intriguing ingredient to add to seafood dishes, too. “When I was working at a small bed-and-breakfast in the U.K., we would scrape the vanilla beans out of the pod and use them in a tomato cream sauce that we would serve with lobster ravioli,” Rutledge says. “We also used salt, sugar, and vanilla bean to cure salmon. It made the sweet-salty combination really pop.”

Another idea: Infuse vanilla into your savory shortbread, and you will have created a memorable accent to any cheese board. “It’s the idea of going back to that brown-butter flavor profile,” Rutledge says. “Shortbread is such a versatile baked good and, even if it has a touch of sweetness, you can use it on a cheese plate. Shortbread made with vanilla bean and rosemary that’s served with blue cheese would be lovely.”


Shop the vanilla aisle, and you’ll notice a wide variety of vanilla extracts, whether they’re imitation, 100% pure, or even infused. No matter which product you put in your basket, keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has guidelines for pure vanilla. “It has to have the exact level of alcohol in it to be called ‘pure,’” Rigley says. “Blended vanilla, by contrast, is a little bit of a different formulation in terms of how much pure vanilla, alcohol, and water is contained in the product.”

Turns out there are big differences between these products. “It’s similar to buying a $5 bottle of wine versus a $30 bottle,” says Stephanie Miller, a recipe-development specialist at Stonewall Kitchen in York, Maine. “Some vanilla products sold at the grocery store have a lighter vanilla flavor, and these are great to use when the end product’s flavor is not vanilla focused.” For example, when you’re making a chocolate cake, adding vanilla will help to enhance the chocolate flavor.

“However, if you’re baking a vanilla cake, making a buttercream, or a vanilla pudding, you will be better off using a high-end vanilla to really help the vanilla flavor shine,” she says. Infused vanillas add depth. “For example, using bourbon vanilla will help enhance the flavors even further,” Miller says.

Ultimately it bears repeating: There’s nothing bland about vanilla.

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