Where does it come from?
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.
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.
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 in specialty shops and some supermarkets, 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 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. Use vanilla sugar for added flavor when baking or in your favorite drinks, or sprinkle it over fruit.
Extract is made by steeping chopped vanilla pods in alcohol and water, then aging the strained liquid. It’s often added to pastries, cakes, cookies, 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 the cupboard staple at home -- it's super simple 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 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, you can swap it out for 1/3 of a vanilla bean, about a 2-inch piece. If your recipe calls for a whole vanilla bean and you only have extract, you need to use three times that, or 1 tablespoon.
Watch our Kitchen Conundrums expert Thomas Joseph's vanilla tutorial: