Why Vanilla Powder Is Better Than Vanilla Extract, According to Professional Bakers

You'll want to use it in everything from cakes to ice cream.

If you're an avid home baker, it might be time to stock vanilla powder in your pantry. Also known as vanilla bean powder and ground vanilla, vanilla powder is essentially whole vanilla beans that have been dried and processed into a powder. The ingredient might seem elusive at first, but with some practice and creativity, it could be just what you need to add warmth and flavor to baked goods and desserts. We spoke to experts to learn what makes vanilla powder so popular with professional bakers.

Ground vanilla in a glass bottle, metal teaspoon, and vanilla beans on a marble countertop
LOVE_LIFE, MichellePatrickPhotographyLLC

Vanilla Powder vs. Vanilla Extract vs. Whole Vanilla Beans

How is vanilla powder different than the vanilla extract or vanilla beans you already have in your kitchen?

Vanilla Powder vs. Vanilla Extract

The two ingredients differ in terms of medium—and therefore, how their flavors incorporate into a recipe. Essentially, vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in a medium of clear alcohol. This infuses the alcohol with vanilla flavor, resulting in vanilla extract. And while its liquid form makes extract easy to add to recipes, it also increases your risk of losing flavor.

The reason? Alcohol evaporates at high temperatures, including those used during baking, says Robert Norman, vanilla specialist at chocolate and vanilla company Beyond Good. This means some of the vanilla flavor will be lost in the oven. On the other hand, vanilla powder isn't carried in a medium. It's nothing more than powdered vanilla beans, so the ingredient (and ultimately, flavor) isn't at the mercy of a liquid like alcohol.

Vanilla Powder vs. Vanilla Beans

When bakers buy whole vanilla beans, the most expensive form of vanilla, they are typically only using the seeds. The whole bean is used to make ground vanilla, which minimizes waste—something that Nik Sharma, author of The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking, really appreciates. "It takes about three years to grow a [vanilla] bean," he says. "The pollination is typically done by hand."

Vanilla powder is also easier to use than vanilla beans.

When to Use Vanilla Powder

Ground vanilla is a versatile ingredient—but these are the best ways to use it, according to our experts.

In High-Heat Recipes

Since vanilla powder isn't carried in a medium that easily evaporates, it's ideal for high-heat recipes. "When you cook or bake with pure ground vanilla, you don't need to worry about losing flavor [through heat and evaporation]," Norman says.

For example, if you were to heat vanilla powder in a dairy (or dairy alternative) ingredient for something like an ice cream base, pudding, or custard, the heat will infuse the dairy with vanilla's flavor compounds—rather than making them evaporate. Or, if you add vanilla powder to a cake batter or cookie dough, "its flavor is incorporated throughout in the same way any other ground spice would be," says Norman.

For the Look

Vanilla powder is also excellent if you want to visually emphasize the ingredient in a recipe. Typically, this approach will manifest in the form of toppings or coatings, such as doughnuts tossed with a sugar and vanilla powder mixture, says Sandra Palmer, chef-instructor of pastry and baking arts at the Institute of Culinary Education.

Similarly, if you're making vanilla bean marshmallows or vanilla ice cream, adding ground vanilla will visually highlight the flavor and effort of the recipe, she explains. In turn, those enjoying the treat will be able to "taste with their eyes" and anticipate how wonderful the flavor will be. "Using it in frostings, cakes, or meringues always gives a more elevated look," says food stylist Molly Wenk.

To Balance or Elevate All Kinds of Flavors

Vanilla powder can also be added to a savory spice mix to help round out other flavors, says Palmer. "It can play a lovely background role of balancing sharper notes like ginger and cardamom," she says. The ingredient pairs particularly well with sweet potatoes and pumpkins, says Norman—"and a little bit can create depth in stews and sauces." Additionally, if you eat meat, you can add ground vanilla to your favorite dry rub, he adds. Try rubbing salt, black pepper, cinnamon, cayenne, and a bit of pure ground vanilla onto pork chops the night before you prepare them.

Finally, if you simply want to elevate the vanilla notes of your creations, the ingredient might be just what you need. Try combining the powder and extract to amplify the warmth of vanilla in your favorite recipes.

Substituting Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Powder

Naturally, sweets like frosting and cookies are prime candidates for ground vanilla—but typically call for extract. As mentioned, you can use powder alongside extract or as a substitute, depending on the flavor profile you'd like to achieve. To utilize it as a vanilla extract substitute, use about half by volume to start, suggests Palmer. If possible, do a test batch so you can determine the best ratio for your specific recipe.

Shopping for Ground Vanilla

In any form, vanilla is an ingredient that is challenging to produce in terms of time, labor, and cost. "As with most other specialty ingredients, it's important to know where and how your vanilla is sourced," says Wenk. "Ideally you are buying from a company that has high ethical standards and protects its workers and environment." Sharma agrees, citing climate change as a factor that heavily impacts vanilla production.

Be sure to pay close attention to labels and source the best you can find. "There's a substantial difference between vanilla extract or vanilla powder and vanilla flavoring," says Wenk. "You always want to go with the real thing if you can."

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