Beyond the Bean: Comparing Vanilla Paste, Extract & Essence

Words: Robyn Samuels

If not for the pre-Columbian Maya discovering vanilla, desserts wouldn’t be as great. Without vanilla extract, chocolate cake would be good at best; with no vanilla paste in sight, the custard in your pudding bowl would taste vanilla. This incredible ingredient has inspired some of the best treats and is a baker’s best friend. But if you’ve resorted to using vanilla essence in your bakes, you might want to know the difference between vanilla paste, extract and essence.

Difference between vanilla paste, vanilla essence and vanilla extract

First Things First, What Is Vanilla?

The vanilla paste, extract or essence we purchase from grocery stores is derived from vanilla seeds, which are encapsulated in vanilla beans or pods – these terms can be used interchangeably, hence why vanilla paste is sold as ‘vanilla bean paste’ at grocery stores.

Vanilla pods

Vanilla is typically thought of and used as a spice to lend flavour to food and beverages, but it is actually extracted from mature vanilla pods, which are technically the fruit of the flowering vanilla orchid.

The pods that stem from the orchid contain tiny seeds. Vanilla is native to Madagascar, but it is also grown in Mauritius, Tahiti, Uganda, Comoros, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Mexico. Madagascar produces approximately 80% of the world’s global supply.

After saffron, vanilla is the second most expensive ‘spice’ in the world. It costs between US$ 42.88 and US$ 34.18 per kilogram for the wholesale average.

The high price is linked to labour-intensive methods and the cost of production. The orchids are hand-pollinated and they only bloom for one day of the year. The flowers are also extremely delicate.

The Difference Between Vanilla Paste, Vanilla Extract & Vanilla Essence

As mentioned, most home bakers would probably just use vanilla essence, which is just as well if you’re baking simple sponge cakes, French Toast and the like, but if you’re an avid baker or want to test different methods then this is a great guide for you to test the difference between the three and to know the effect each would have in the final outcome of your bakes. The main difference lies in taste but choosing between vanilla paste, extract or essence can help produce the consistency you’re after.

Vanilla essence

Vanilla Paste

Vanilla paste is the more expensive of the three. Avid bakers and professional pastry chefs store this in their pantries. In its purest form, the paste is made by scraping the vanilla beans. But the commercial kind usually incorporates vanilla powder, which is vanilla beans that have been scraped from the pods, dried and then ground to form a fine powder. This is mixed with vanilla extract, as vanilla pods can be pretty pricey. Natural thickeners like xanthan gum, cornstarch or gelatin are used – which is worth noting if you’re vegan. Homemade vanilla paste can also be naturally thickened using honey.

Vanilla paste contains vanilla seeds and is typically used in custard, ice cream and desserts that require a thicker consistency. The paste itself is also thicker and has a sticky, syrupy consistency. Because vanilla paste has actual seeds and is closer to pure vanilla, the flavour is more intense compared to extract or essence. When incorporated into desserts, it provides texture too, as the seeds are visible, giving the batter a speckled appearance.

Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract is similar to vanilla essence in consistency but varies greatly in composition. Vanilla extract is made by steeping pure vanilla pods in alcohol which is diluted with water. The liquid is strained to remove the whole pods and seeds. The resultant liquid is smooth and tastes similar to vanilla paste, making it a decent substitute for vanilla paste.

Some people make homemade vanilla extract by leaving vanilla pods in neutral alcohol like vodka, and storing it in a cool, dark place; leaving it in a warm place could cause it to evaporate and grow harmful bacteria. Bourbon is also used as a baking substitute for vanilla extract due to its sweet and spicy flavour – because bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels, it develops a vanilla and caramel-like flavour with time.

Vanilla Essence

Vanilla essence is exactly what it sounds like, the essence of vanilla. This is the synthetic version of vanilla extract and is made using flavourants that mimic the taste of vanillin – the flavour component in vanilla. Vanilla essence is also believed to be more intense in flavour compared to extract and contains approximately 5% more alcohol in comparison. Essence is great for all-purpose baking like basic sponge cakes or cupcakes.

Want more baking tips? Try these baking substitutions if you’re low on certain ingredients.  

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