And can you swap one for the other?

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Vanilla is one of the world's most labor-intensive and expensive crops, second only to saffron. Every plant must be hand-pollinated; vanilla is the fruit of an orchid that blossoms for only a few hours each year. The beans (or pods) are later harvested, also by hand, and cured for three to six months, during which time they shrivel up to one-quarter of their original size, lose 80 percent of their moisture, and develop their characteristic aroma which perfumes cakes, cookies, ice creams, puddings, pies, and more.

Vanilla bean and extract
Credit: Jonathan Lovekin

Where Does Vanilla Come From?

Vanilla is grown in Madagascar, Java, Mexico, and Tahiti; each country's beans have their own distinctive flavor. Madagascar and Indonesian vanilla boasts the most vanillin, the signature flavor compound in vanilla beans. Mexican vanilla contains half as much vanillin but is uniquely smoky, winey, and fruity. Tahitian vanilla also has a lot less vanillin and is prized for its more perfumed, floral flavor.

Vanilla Beans

Whole vanilla beans have a more complex vanilla flavor than extract. Use the pods and the tiny seeds within to infuse sauces and custards. Available online as well as in specialty shops and some supermarkets, vanilla beans should be shiny, brownish black, and moist. They will keep indefinitely in an airtight container at room temperature. Don't toss them out after one use. Rinse, dry, and store them for a second use. After that, place the beans, again rinsed and dried, in a jar with sugar to give the sugar a mild vanilla flavor. Then use this vanilla sugar for added flavor when baking or in your favorite drinks, or sprinkle it over fruit.

Vanilla Extract

Extract is made by steeping chopped vanilla pods in alcohol and water, then aging the strained liquid. It's often added to pastries and other desserts. When buying extract, always make sure the label says "pure" (imitation types leave a bitter aftertaste). Tightly sealed at room temperature, it will last indefinitely. Or try making this pantry staple at home using our recipe—vanilla extract is super simple to make and makes a great gift, especially for someone who loves to bake (just add a label and a ribbon!).

How to Substitute One for the Other

Vanilla beans have a much stronger flavor than extract, so you don't need to use as much. For example, if your recipe calls for one teaspoon vanilla extract, you can swap it out for 1/3 of a vanilla bean, about a two-inch piece. If your recipe calls for a whole vanilla bean and you only have extract, you need to use three times that, or one tablespoon.

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