When it comes to vanilla, there’s nothing like the real thing—especially when vanilla flavor is the star of the dessert. In my experience, pure vanilla, either beans with their dazzling seeds or pure extract, gives the best flavor to desserts, whether they’re cakes, custards, sauces, ice cream, cookies, or fruit compotes.
Vanilla beans and their tiny seeds lend an especially intense flavor and heavenly aroma to any dessert, but they’re quite costly and aren’t as readily available as pure vanilla extract. I use vanilla beans in my desserts when I’m celebrating a special occasion or when a particular dessert benefits from the potent flavor and the tantalizingly beautiful seeds. But it’s pure vanilla extract that I use on a regular basis—it’s the workhorse ingredient in all of my desserts. While its flavor isn’t quite as strong as the bean’s and it lacks the visual element of the seeds, I find the results just as aromatic and delicious. The following recipes capitalize on the pure, bold flavor of vanilla, and you can make all of these desserts with either pure extract or vanilla beans.
Although it might be tempting to use less expensive imitation vanilla flavoring, especially if your dessert features other strong flavorings like spices or chocolate, don’t do it. Imitation or artificial vanilla flavoring isn’t really vanilla at all, but a lowly, cloying impersonator that will always leave a bitter taste in your desserts.
Best buys: shopping for and storing vanilla
Buying: Always buy pure vanilla extract, never imitation.
Storing: Sealed and stored in a cool, dark spot, vanilla extract will last almost forever—the flavor may even improve with age. That’s good news if you like to buy in large quantities. Many good brands are available in larger volumes at discounted rates.
Buying: Selecting vanilla beans is much like choosing fruit—look for size, shape, feel, and smell. The perfect bean is 5 to 7 inches long, plump, and has very dark brown skin; it should feel moist and supple (not dry and brittle) when rolled between your fingers. And be sure it passes the sniff test: Even through heavy plastic, the aroma should be close to intoxicating.
Storing: Store vanilla beans in a sealed container in a cool, dark place. They should stay moist for up to six months. If they begin to dry out, add them to your vanilla extract or a jar of vodka. And don’t discard the used beans: The seeded pods still have tons of flavor. Add them to your sugar container, coffee beans, or favorite liqueur.
Is vanilla bean paste better?
You might see vanilla bean paste in stores—it’s a thick liquid that suspends the tiny vanilla seeds. We tested all the recipes here side by side using beans, extract, and paste, and we found that the paste worked best in batters. We don’t recommend paste for custards (ours had a strange texture) or icings (ours separated).