By Vicky McDonald
March 27, 2015

When it comes to vanilla, there are a lot of choices out there — vanilla extract, vanilla beans, and vanilla bean paste. It can be hard to know which is the right one to use for which recipe. Vanilla extract is by the far the most popular choice for home cooks. It's readily available, affordable, and not to mention versatile. Vanilla beans are expensive, but worth it if you want a richer, deeper vanilla flavor, and vanilla bean paste is always a good compromise. We explain the difference between all three products, and the benefits of each.

Vanilla beans, vanilla paste, and vanilla extract
Whole vanilla beans, vanilla paste, and vanilla extract | Photo by Meredith

What is vanilla extract?

Pure vanilla extract is made from dried vanilla beans and alcohol. It has a rich, sweet flavor and a deep, dark-brown color. Always look for the word 'pure' when buying vanilla extract, as the imitation versions have a bitter aftertaste. Vanilla extract is not as strong as vanilla beans, so if your recipe calls for a whole vanilla bean and you only have extract, use three times the volume, or 1 tablespoon.

You can also make your own vanilla extract at home. The quality of your vanilla extract will depend on the quality of vanilla bean pods that you use. Pure vanilla extract adds a rich vanilla flavor and aroma to candy, cookies, and cakes. It's the perfect store-cupboard staple for everyday baking.

Homemade Vanilla Extract
Photo by The Gruntled Gourmet

What are vanilla beans?

Vanilla beans are the purest form of vanilla you can get, and have a complex flavor and aroma. Vanilla bean pods contain thousands of tiny vanilla bean flecks that impart the flavor of vanilla. Vanilla beans cost more than extract but do have a deeper vanilla flavor. When buying vanilla pods, look for ones that are plump and shiny and not overly dried out.

To use vanilla beans, cut the end off the pod, split the bean lengthwise down the center and then scrape out the seeds with the back of your knife. The use of pure vanilla bean seeds will give you a stronger vanilla flavor and is especially good to use in the making of homemade ice cream and vanilla custards.

Pro Tip: Don't throw away the seedless pod when you've finished with —tuck it into your sugar holder and the pod will give your sugar a subtle vanilla flavor.

What is vanilla bean paste?

Vanilla bean paste is a convenient product that's a thicker version of vanilla extract with some vanilla bean seeds added to it. If you're looking for a pure vanilla taste and look, but don't want to splash out on real vanilla pods, then vanilla bean paste is a great option. A teaspoon of paste equals a teaspoon of extract.

It's delicious when used in vanilla frosting and vanilla sauce and will also give you those beautiful brown flecks.

Vanilla Bean Paste
Photo by Meredith

Portions of this article appeared in December/January 2020 issue of Allrecipes Magazine.