I have a large collection of cookbooks, and the ones I rely on for baking impart a critical piece of advice: Use only the best ingredients, including spices and extracts.
Many authors are quite specific about the brand of vanilla extract they use: Nielsen-Massey. I’ve come to rely on it, too, for both sweet and savory dishes, and the company uses organic vanilla beans.
Nielsen-Massey is pricier than many of the vanillas you’ll find on supermarket shelves, but consider it an investment in taste. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of a 4-oz. bottle. I buy it at my local Cost Plus World Market, which offers competitive prices.
As I wrote a few years ago in Flavor Focus: Vanilla, “vanilla beans with distinctive nuances come from four principal parts of the world”:
- Madagascar: Mellow and creamy flavor; often referred to as "bourbon" vanilla beans because they're grown on the Bourbon Islands
- Mexico: Mild and smooth
- Tahiti: More aromatic, musky and sweet
- Indonesia: Smokier and sharper
For baking, choose Madagascar vanilla, which holds up well in high oven temperatures.
Mexican vanilla, according to the experts at Nielsen-Massey, is spicier and “smoothes out the heat and acidity of tomatoes and chili peppers, which are used in salsas and barbecue sauces.
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns consumers to purchase only Mexican pure vanilla that is produced in the United States,” they add. “Mexican vanilla is often made with coumarin, a toxic substance banned in the U.S.”
Tahitian vanilla is ideal for foods that are cooked and cooled, such as refrigerated and frozen desserts, fruit pies, sauces, smoothies and shakes.
For a great selection of vanilla recipes (and holiday gift books), check out:
- A Century of Flavors
- Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance
- Simply Vanilla: Recipes for Everyday Use