It's all about those signature vanilla flecks.

By Margaret Eby
March 25, 2019
Thomas Demarczyk/Getty Images

Vanilla extract is a pantry staple, particularly if you like baking. That handy little bottle gives vanilla flavor to cookies, cakes, whipped cream, custards, and all types of sweets. I always have vanilla in my kitchen, but for years, I didn't think all that much about it. When a recipe called for an actual vanilla bean, I usually replaced it with extract, since vanilla beans are difficult to find at the grocery stores near me, and when they are available, they're really expensive. But recently, when visiting the kitchen of The Little Beet Table in New York City, I noted that Executive Chef Matt Aita's banana bread didn't have vanilla beans or vanilla extract. Instead, he used vanilla paste. Aita told me this was because the paste was more cost effective than using vanilla beans, which have skyrocketed in price in recent years. 

I was intrigued, so I started researching vanilla paste and tried to figure out when to use vanilla paste instead of vanilla extract. Beth Nielsen, the owner and manager of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, told me that the difference is all about the seeds. "The most succinct answer is that you'd use paste when you want to see the vanilla bean seeds," Nielsen said. You know, those tell-tale little black flecks in vanilla bean ice cream or vanilla custard? Using the paste or scraping out the bean gives you those, while extract does not. 

"Vanilla paste replaces the beans, and it's more uniform," she said. "Plus, it replaces the labor of scraping out the beans."

Flavor-wise, the paste and the extract are pretty much interchangeable, but the extract has a touch of sugar, so it's particularly good for on grilled meats and fish, along with adding a barely-there crust to whatever you're making. "It's a paper-thin layer that helps seal in the moisture of whatever protein you're using," Nielsen said.

Vanilla paste is a little more difficult to find in a grocery store than extract, but it's widely used in commercial kitchens and readily available online. Nielsen-Massey sells both a Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Paste and a Tahitian Vanilla Paste as well as a mixed-origin Vanilla Bean Paste. For serious bakers, it's definitely worth adding to your arsenal. 

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