The Difference Between Vanilla Beans and Vanilla Extract

Vanilla is the second most popular flavor in the world. It’s used extensively in baking, cooking, and desserts. But what’s the difference between using bulk vanilla beans versus vanilla extract? While they both offer that distinctive vanilla taste, they aren’t exactly the same. Understanding when to use each will help you unlock the full potential of vanilla flavor.

Vanilla Beans

Vanilla beans are the dried, cured fruit pods of the vanilla orchid plant. Inside these long brown pods are thousands of tiny black vanilla seeds, which is where the flavor is contained. The beans are picked by hand and then cured through an intricate process that develops their characteristic vanilla flavors and aromas. Curing methods vary by region but generally involve steps like blanching, sweating, drying, and conditioning.

Vanilla beans deliver a robust, multifaceted vanilla flavor that can’t be replicated by extract alone. When you cook or bake with whole beans, you’re imparting a more nuanced and intense vanilla taste. Beans also add visual interest and texture to recipes. Tiny flecks of vanilla bean seeds will be present throughout.

Tips For Cooking and Baking with Vanilla Beans

  • Split the bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. The seeds contain the most concentrated vanilla flavor.
  • Infuse milk, cream, or sugar with a split bean. Let it steep for at least 30 minutes to fully infuse the vanilla essence. Discard the bean before using it.
  • Add a whole or split bean to syrups, custards, puddings, creme, etc. Remove the bean before serving.
  • Bake beans into cookies, cakes, or breads. The beans will melt into the batter, dispersing flavor and speckling it with vanilla seeds.
  • Blend beans into smoothies, shakes, and ice creams. Strain out the bean pieces if you don’t want texture.
  • Use leftover dried bean pods to flavor granulated sugar. Store in an airtight container.
  • Make vanilla sugar by storing beans in a jar of sugar. Use it for baking or beverages.

Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in a solution of water or ethyl alcohol. This solution draws out the flavor compounds from the vanilla bean. Real, pure vanilla extract contains at least 35% alcohol. Imitation vanilla extract contains synthetic vanillin rather than real organic vanilla beans extractives. Always choose real extract for the most authentic flavor.

Because it’s already been extracted, vanilla extract allows you to get that vanilla taste more conveniently. However, the complex flavor notes you get from a whole bean simply aren’t present. The extract works well in any recipe where you want vanilla flavoring but the nuances of the bean aren’t as important.

Tips For Using Vanilla Extract

  • For most recipes, replace one vanilla bean with 1-2 teaspoons of extract. Start with 1 teaspoon and add more to taste.
  • Add vanilla extract at the end of cooking recipes so the alcohol doesn’t bake off.
  • When adding to liquids like batter or dough, stir or whisk vigorously to disperse the flavor evenly.
  • Store vanilla extract in a cool, dark place to preserve freshness. Unopened, it will keep for 3-4 years.
  • Avoid using vanilla extract in very hot liquids or in unbaked applications, as the alcohol can create an unpleasant bitter taste.

Should You Use Beans or Extract?

So, when should you opt for vanilla beans instead of extract? Here are some guidelines on what choice you should use according the purpose of you want to use it for.

  • Use beans for recipes where you want to highlight vanilla as a featured flavor, like panna cotta or vanilla ice cream.
  • Use beans when you want those vanilla bean flecks, like in vanilla sugar cookies.
  • Use beans to infuse custards, puddings, curds, and creme-based desserts.
  • Use beans for savory dishes where you want a floral, gourmet vanilla flavor, like seafood or braised meats.
  • Use extract in recipes where vanilla is not the star flavor, like cakes or chocolate chip cookies.
  • Use extract when a recipe calls for liquid vanilla like in a vinaigrette or beverage.
  • Use extract for baking when you don’t need the visual of real beans.

In Conclusion

The beauty of vanilla is just how versatile it is. With whole beans and extract on hand, you will be prepared to add amazing vanilla flavor to all sorts of sweet and savory recipes. Don’t be afraid to experiment with combining beans and extract too. A cake with vanilla bean flecks and an extra kick of extract will be bursting with vanilla love!



Elevate Your Fall Baking with These 3 Vanilla Bean Recipes

As the leaves start to change and the air turns crisp, it’s time to warm up your kitchen with some cozy baked goods. Vanilla bean is the perfect way to add a touch of fall flavor to your favorite treats. With its rich, aromatic notes, vanilla bean can take your cookies, cakes, and other baked delights to the next level. Read on for 3 irresistible vanilla bean recipes that will upgrade your autumn baking routine.

Classic Pumpkin Bars


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 tsp salt
  • 1⁄2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1⁄4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 11⁄2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin puree
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9×13 inch baking pan and line with parchment paper, leaving overhang on two sides to easily lift bars out when cool.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, ginger and nutmeg.
  3. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the pumpkin, eggs and vanilla until combined.
  4. Gradually stir in the dry ingredients until just incorporated. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.
  5. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
  6. Once cool, use the parchment overhang to lift the bars out of the pan. Cut into squares and serve. 

Maple Cookies with Vanilla Bean Icing


For the cookies:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon maple extract

For the icing:

  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out 


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, beat the butter and maple syrup together until smooth and creamy. Beat in the egg and maple extract.
  4. Slowly mix in the dry ingredients until just combined.
  5. Scoop rounded tablespoonfuls of dough onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart.
  6. Bake for 12-14 minutes, until lightly browned on the bottoms. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheet.
  7. Make the icing: In a medium bowl, mix together the confectioners’ sugar, heavy cream and vanilla bean seeds. Whisk until smooth.
  8. Dip the tops of the cooled cookies into the icing and transfer to a wire rack to allow icing to set, about 15 minutes.

Enjoy your maple cookies! The maple and vanilla bean flavors complement each other perfectly.

Baked Apple with Vanilla Bean Glaze


  • 4 large apples (Honeycrisp or Gala work well)
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp butter, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1/4 cup water
  • For the glaze:
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
  • 1-2 tbsp milk


  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  2. Core the apples using an apple corer or paring knife. Peel the top third of each apple and leave the bottom two-thirds with peel intact. This helps the apples hold their shape while baking.
  3. Place the apples in a baking dish. Fill the center of each apple with 1 tbsp brown sugar and 1/4 tsp cinnamon. Top with a piece of butter.
  4. Pour the water into the bottom of the baking dish. Bake for 45-55 minutes until apples are very tender when pierced with a knife but still hold their shape.
  5. While apples bake, make the glaze. Whisk together the powdered sugar, vanilla and 1 tbsp milk until smooth. Add additional milk as needed to reach a drizzling consistency.
  6. When apples are done, remove them from oven and let them cool slightly. Drizzle the vanilla glaze over each apple before serving. Enjoy!

In conclusion

These 3 delicious vanilla bean recipes are sure to elevate your fall baking. The pumpkin bars, maple cookies, and baked apples provide a variety of textures and flavors that complement the vanilla bean perfectly. Using high-quality vanilla beans, whether in extract form or the beans themselves, allows the subtle vanilla flavor to shine. Be sure to try these recipes to add a gourmet touch to your autumnal baked goods.

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