The vanilla bean is the fruit of the vanilla planifolia (fragrans) orchid, the only orchid producing an edible product.
On the vine, vanilla beans look like healthy green beans; when picked, they are flavourless, requiring a lengthy curing process to metamorphose into the slightly shrivelled, intoxicatingly pungent black pod with the volatile seeds bursting with that floral-sweet taste we know as vanilla.
It is one of the world’s most popular dessert flavourings, but chefs are now also using it to give individuality to savoury sauces and dressings.
To get the lowdown on all things vanilla, we tapped The Australian Women's Weekly's Fran Abdallaoui and Pamela Clark, who have shared their expert knowledge on this fragrant favourite.
What are vanilla beans?
Look for moist and supple pods which are dark brown to black in colour. They should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
To extract the seeds from the vanilla bean, split the pod lengthways, then scrape out the seeds using the point of a knife, as shown in the video below.
Vanilla pods are perfect in poached pears, creamy desserts, ice-creams and some savoury sauces.
And never discard the de-seeded pod, as you can create vanilla sugar by storing the scraped pods in a canister of caster sugar.
What is vanilla essence?
Vanilla essence is an economical and traditional mild vanilla flavour suitable for drinks and everyday baking.
The processing involves extracting the flavour by soaking finely chopped, cured vanilla beans in alcohol and water.
What are vanilla extracts?
Several types of vanilla extracts are available – some single origin, some containing seeds, or thickened to a syrupy consistency with the addition of glucose or glycerine.
Extracts are around two to three times the strength of essence. These are more suited to baking, as they contain little alcohol and can withstand high temperatures.
Extracts are also more pungent than essence and are perfect for whipped cream, cheesecakes or icings.
What is vanilla bean paste?
Prized for its intensity, vanilla paste provides true vanilla flavour to desserts and baking with the convenience of spooning it from the jar.
One teaspoon of paste is the equivalent of one scraped vanilla bean and it can be used in any recipe where a vanilla pod is called for, especially in panna cotta, crème brûlée or custard desserts.
What is vanilla bean powder?
Made from ground vanilla beans, vanilla bean powder is free from sugar and alcohol.
It can be used in everything from drinks and chocolate making to a classic meringue.
Two grams of vanilla bean powder is the equivalent flavour to one vanilla bean.