There's nothing plain about it.

With more than 300 complex flavor components, pure vanilla is anything but plain. Its many tropical varieties will make a big difference in your holiday baking.

By Ashley Flaws

vanilla in jars
Photo: Getty Images

That little bottle of vanilla extract in your pantry IS ONLY THE BEGINNING.

The world of vanilla is so much roomier, spanning the tropics from Mexico to Madagascar and Tahiti to Tonga. In addition to extracts, it comes in pastes, powders, and whole beans. And any of them will elevate your holiday baking.

Vanilla plants grow best within 20 degrees of the equator, and each country's beans have their own distinctive flavor. Vanilla from Madagascar and Indonesia, for instance, boasts the most vanillin, the signature flavor compound in vanilla beans. Mexican beans have half as much vanillin but are smoky, fruity, and wine-y. Tahitian vanilla has a lot less vanillin, too, but is famed for its more perfumed, floral flavor.

For hundreds of years, Mexico had a monopoly on vanilla beans. Although the vanilla orchid could grow on vines in other moist, tropical climates around the world, only a rare type of bee in Mexico could pollinate the tricky trumpet-shape plant to produce their bashful beans. That is, until 1841, when people realized they could hand-pollinate the plants using a toothpick-like stick-a method still used today.

tahitian vanilla
Photo: Getty Images

It's Not Easy Being Vanilla

Vanilla is one of the world's most labor-intensive and expensive crops-second only to saffron. It's the fruit of an orchid that has to be hand-pollinated and that blossoms only a few hours each year. The beans (or pods) are later harvested, also by hand, and cured for three to six months, until they shrink to one-quarter of their original size, lose 80 percent of their moisture, and develop their subtle aroma.

picking vanilla
Photo: Getty Images

Recipes with Vanilla

We put a variety of vanillas to work in these recipes. They'll convince you that there's more to vanilla than the old ice cream standby.

Vanilla bean paste provides the pretty flecks and deep flavor of vanilla beans without having to split and scrape those skinny pods.

vanilla creme brulee
Photo: Andy Lyons

To enhance the smoky taste, we used an Indonesian vanilla extract here. Indonesian beans are typically cured over fire, giving them a sharper, woodier flavor. Bonus: They're often the least-expensive option. Or, for a subtle hint of chocolate, use a Ugandan vanilla extract.

vanilla shortbread cookies
Photo: Andy Lyons

Mexican vanilla is creamy and spicy, reminiscent of clove or nutmeg. Long a favorite, its extract's homey aroma warms up any recipe.

vanilla cheesecake
Photo: Andy Lyons

The vanilla extract in your pantry is most likely from Madagascar, the world's largest producer. It's often labeled "Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract" because it's from the Bourbon Islands in the western Indian Ocean (no connection to Kentucky stills!).

vanilla bread pudding
Photo: Andy Lyons

Yet another way to love the bean: Fill a sterilized 1-qt. jar with sugar. Using a small sharp knife, split several vanilla beans in half lengthwise and immerse them completely in the sugar. Cover and let stand 2 weeks in a cool dry place. (It keeps indefinitely.)

Vanilla enhances flavors in a variety of foods, particularly those with coffee and nuts. It also smooths out citrus' acidity.

vanilla sugar
Photo: Andy Lyons

Check out our collection of Recipes with Vanilla Extract.

This article originally appeared in December/January 2020 issue of Allrecipes Magazine.