Cooking with Vanilla

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Vanilla is used mainly in sweet foods. Almost half of the vanilla flavoring consumed in the United States goes into ice cream, and much of the rest into soft drinks and chocolate. But it also works in savory dishes: lobster and pork are popular examples. Added with a light touch, vanilla can contribute a sense of depth, warmth, roundness, and persistence to almost any food.
The flavor of the whole vanilla bean resides in two different parts of the bean: the sticky, resinous material in which the tiny seeds are embedded, and the fibrous pod wall. The first is easily scraped out of the bean and dispersed in a preparation, while the pod itself must be soaked for some time in order to extract its flavor. Because the volatiles are generally more soluble in fat than in water, the cook can extract more flavor if the extraction liquid includes either alcohol or fat. Prepared vanilla extracts can be dispersed throughout a dish instantly, and are usually best added toward the end of cooking; any period of time spent at a high temperature causes aroma loss.