Vanilla has long been popular for its aroma and flavour. Read our guide to what’s available plus quick ideas and recipes.
Vanilla is one of the world's favourite culinary flavours. The beans grow on a tropical orchid of which there are more than 100 varieties.
Producing vanilla beans is a labour-intensive process, mainly carried out by hand. Fresh beans are green in colour and have no flavour or aroma. The beans go through a drying and curing process that can take up to 6 months and it's only then that they develop their dark brown/black colour and intense flavour. The inside of the bean or pod contains lots of thick, black sticky seeds. Both the pod and beans are used in cooking. Split vanilla beans can be re-used to make vanilla sugar.
Natural vanilla extract
An extract from vanilla is made by macerating chopped vanilla beans in alcohol. A proportion of the alcohol is then distilled, leaving a thick, strong vanilla solution containing up to 35% alcohol. There are various grades and strengths - tasting them is the best method to determine which you prefer.
Pure vanilla essence
This is made the same way as vanilla extract, using vanilla beans. It has a slightly thinner consistency and not such a strong flavour. As with extract, the quality can vary so check the label to determine what ingredients have been used.
Imitation vanilla essence
This vanilla flavouring is made from all artificial ingredients, one of which is artificial vanillin (no vanilla bean used).
Vanilla sugar is caster sugar that has been flavoured with vanilla. To make your own, take a split vanilla bean after it's been used. Rinse under water then dry on a wire rack. Place into a glass jar filled with caster sugar. Secure lid then stand for at least 1 month.
All vanilla (beans and liquid) should be stored in airtight jars in a cool, dark, dry place for up to 18 months.