For home and professional chefs, the most often used form of vanilla is extract. Pure vanilla extract is made by extracting the essence of cured vanilla pods through a process of grinding and combining with alcohol and water.
According to Nielsen-Massey co-owner Beth Nielsen, cold extraction as used by their factory takes longer but delivers a superior product rather than using heat to speed up the extraction process.
Artificial vanilla does not use vanilla pods but is a chemically derived food flavoring known as vanillan.
When used in its extract form, vanilla is a volatile flavor essence. This means that when exposed directly to heat, it, along with its 494 flavor notes, evaporates quickly.
To prevent this, vanilla experts advise that when using extract in a cooked dish to add it at the end of cooking. When baking, the best time is to add it along with shortening and eggs to maximize its ability to bind with the fats.
Using vanilla beans is expensive but in terms of flavor, in this writer’s experience, delivers a lot of bang for the buck because a little goes a long way. Here, the technique is to cut off a small piece of the vanilla pod, split it open and scrape the tiny seeds into your dish. Add the pod casing as well and remove before eating.
Then there’s vanilla paste. According to Patricia Rain, aka “the Vanilla Queen,” vanilla paste is “a blend of concentrated vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder often containing invert sugar or corn syrup that acts as a binder.”
Vanilla paste is recommended for recipes in which vanilla bean might be used or for recipes in which added liquid would change the consistency, such as candy or frostings.