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Vanilla Extract - Only The Real Stuff Please!

Updated on July 31, 2010

If you think vanilla is a ho-hum also-ran in the world of flavor, you should know that it is by far the best-selling flavor of ice cream in America. Chocolate, strawberry, and Chubby Hubby just can't compete with plain vanilla.

What we think of as vanilla flavor comes from vanillin, a chemical that has been duplicated somewhat successfully in the chemistry lab - not so successfully that you can't notice a clear difference between artificial and genuine vanilla extract in a side-by-side tasting. However, some manufactured versions are perfectly acceptable; by the time artificial vanilla reaches your oatmeal cookies, you won't taste the difference. If, however, you're making something for which vanilla is the central flavor - like ice cream - you may want to spring for the real McCoy.

Making vanilla extract is a simple process - you can even do it at home. Soak vanilla beans in alcohol (vodka or brandy work best) for anywhere from a month to six months, shaking the jar occasionally. Remove the beans, strain, and voila! - vanilla extract.

Vanilla extract is most commonly used in baking. It's essential for a wide range of cakes, quick breads, and pastries. But that's not all it's good for:

  • Add it to berries for compotes, summer puddings, or cobblers.
  • Spike eggnog or a creamy coffee drink with vanilla.
  • Mix it into a banana, mango, or papaya smoothie.
  • Add it to sorbet or fruit soup.
  • Dress up your morning oatmeal with vanilla and brown sugar or maple syrup.
  • Vanilla's a natural with cream; add it to flan, ice cream, dulce de leche, rice pudding, or crème brûlée.
  • Add vanilla to mulled wine or cider.
  • Serve fish or shellfish with a white-wine reduction flavored with just a touch of vanilla.
  • Slightly sweet salad dressings like honey mustard or honey lemon are even better with a drop of vanilla.
  • Add a teaspoon of vanilla to your French toast batter.

Vanilla Frosting 3 Ways

Vanilla Butter Cream Frosting

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2-1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 tsp salt
3 Tbsp whole milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

In a large bowl, use a hand mixer to cream the butter. Add the remaining ingredients and beat until smooth and creamy.

Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting

6 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar

In a large bowl, use a hand mixer to beat the cream cheese with butter and vanilla. Add the powdered sugar a 1/2 cup at a time, mixing until fully combined after each addition.

Creamy Vanilla Frosting

3 Tbsp AP flour
1 cup milk
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. In a medium sauce pan, whisk the flour and milk until combined. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick and just beginning to bubble, about 10 minutes. Cover the surface with parchment paper and allow to cool at room temperature for about 40 minutes.

2. In a large bowl, use a hand mixer to cream the butter until smooth. Gradually add the sugar and continue beating until fluffy. Add the vanilla and mix well.

3. Combine the cooled milk mixture and sugar mixture and beat on a medium speed for 5 minutes until it's whiter in color and smooth. Cover and refrigerate for exactly 15 minutes, use immediately.


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    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I think making your own vanilla extract is an interesting idea. Love the recipes, especially the Vanilla Buttercream Frosting. Great job.

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      It's surprisingly easy to make; Use 2-3 fresh vanilla beans (cut open lengthwise) to 4 ounces of vodka. Place the beans and vodka in a dark colored glass bottle, leaving enough room to shake the liquid. Cover tightly and place in a dark pantry or cupboard for 30 days, giving it a good shake every day or so. Strain the extract through a fine sieve, re-bottle it in a clean dark glass bottle and use in all your favorite recipes. :)

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Never gave it a thought to make my own vanilla. What proportions do you use?