Vanilla is such a delicious and versatile ingredient, and we totally understand why you would want to get the real thing when possible. Real vanilla has a flavor profile that’s sweet, floral, and with smoky or woody undertones. However, it’s not always possible or practical to get real vanilla beans.
Why Are Vanilla Beans So Expensive?
Vanilla beans are so expensive because the growing, harvesting and processing are labor-intensive and time-consuming. After growing the pods (which can take 3-5 years), they have to be hand-picked and immediately processed because they start deteriorating once they are picked.
Vanilla beans dipped immediately in boiling water to stop their growth then cured for 20 days. The curing process involves drying them in direct sunlight during the day, then wrapping them at night. Afterward, they must be fermented for 4-6 months to allow them to develop that delicious flavor and aroma of vanilla that we love so much!
Whew, no wonder they cost a pretty penny!
What If I Do Have Vanilla Beans?
If you’re lucky enough to have vanilla beans around, look for plump, dark-skinned pods with smooth and pliable skin. Even simple rubbing your finger against the pod should be enough to release some of the oils of the pods so that you immediately smell that lush vanilla scent.
Storing Vanilla Beans
If you have vanilla beans, you can extend the shelf life and prevent the pods from drying out by wrapping them in plastic and storing them in an airtight container. Fresh vanilla beans can be stored in the fridge for up to 6 months, but they do not take well to being frozen.
What Can I Substitute for Vanilla Bean?
Here’s the thing: while vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world, it’s also the second most expensive spice, coming behind only saffron (there’s a little trivia for all you trivia lovers out there!). So if you have a recipe that calls for using vanilla but you don’t want to break the bank, you can use vanilla bean substitutes
For home bakers, vanilla extract is the go-to vanilla bean substitute. Vanilla beans are macerated and steeped in a solution of water and alcohol, which effectively extracts much of the oils responsible for the flavor and aroma of vanilla beans. Since it is highly-concentrated, 1 teaspoon (approx. 5 ml) of vanilla extract equals 1 vanilla bean. However, vanilla extract is not recommended for those with vanilla allergies.
Vanilla powder is produced by drying and pulverizing vanilla beans, and since it lacks alcohol, it is best used for desserts such as puddings and custards. Some brands mix the vanilla powder with a sweetener (usually refined sugar) so you need to check the ingredients whether there is an additional sweetener. For vanilla powder, you use 2 teaspoons to equal 1 vanilla bean.
While this is less common, you can find vanilla sugar in baking shops. It is generally refined white sugar mixed with the dark grains of vanilla beans to impact the vanilla flavor. 1-2 teaspoons of vanilla sugar equal 1 vanilla bean, however, you need to take into account the amount of refined sugar that you will be adding to the recipe by using this kind of vanilla substitute. Thus, you might need to reduce the sugar required in the recipe.
If you really want the authentic taste and flavor of vanilla beans, using vanilla paste could be a great alternative. Vanilla bean paste substitute is made with the scraped-out grains of the vanilla beans mixed with some types of binder (usually corn syrup or invert sugar). Similar with vanilla sugar though, you need to be careful with the level of sweetness that you end up with!
Are There Non-Vanilla Substitutes to Vanilla Bean?
Surprisingly, yes! There are a couple of good sources that you can use to substitute for that vanilla flavor and aroma that don’t actually come from vanilla.
If you have vanilla allergies, almond extract is actually a good substitute for vanilla bean. It’s comparable in price and in flavor, especially when you use it for baking. Almond extract results in the same nutty flavor that you can get from vanilla bean. Almond extract should be used in the same ratio as vanilla extract
While maple syrup might have the same nutty flavor as vanilla for some recipes, you should consider two things. First, maple syrup is not as sweet as vanilla, so you need to increase the ratio. You will need to use a 1.5:1 ratio maple syrup to vanilla bean. Second, maple syrup has a sweetness and stickiness that you won’t find in vanilla bean, so using maple syrup to replace vanilla in recipes that call for a lot of vanilla can change the sweetness and consistency of the final product.
When it comes to vanilla bean substitutes, you can choose vanilla-based substitutes such as vanilla extract and vanilla sugar if you have a recipe that highlights the floral taste of vanilla such as in puddings or custards. However, if you’re using baked recipes or you have a vanilla allergy, you can use vanilla extract or almond extract.
In the end, it will be up to your personal preferences, your budget, and what’s available to you.