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Pure vanilla extract (Recipe: sea bass with vanilla cream sauce)


Given a choice between chocolate and vanilla, I'll always pick chocolate.

Chocolate ice cream and chocolate cookies. Chocolate cake with chocolate icing.

Brownies over blondies.

And yet I've found quite a lot of pure vanilla extract in The Perfect Pantry.

All of my favorite chocolate desserts contain vanilla extract, because it's vanilla that gives chocolate the rich flavor we love. Specifically, Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is what's most familiar to our taste buds.

Vanilla, the second-most-expensive spice in the world after saffron, is the fruit of an orchid vine. Each vine can produce up to a thousand flowers. The flowers are hand-pollinated, and thinned to allow for sufficient light and air circulation. After pollination, the flowers develop into thin pods (beans), 8-12 inches long. The pods are picked when green, plunged into hot water, and then dried and sweated for up to six months until they turn dark brown and develop vanillin, a crystalline white "frost" on the outside of the bean that gives the bean its flavor and aroma. Then the beans are aged for up to two years, to concentrate the fragrance and flavor.

The majority of the world's vanilla (80 percent) comes from Madagascar and Réunion Island. The extract produced there is often called "Bourbon", not because it's made of bourbon but because Réunion was formerly called Isle de Bourbon. These beans are the sweetest, with a rich flavor.

Mexico also produces vanilla extract; the bean is darker and the flavor more intense.

And then there is Tahitian vanilla. The beans are almost black in color, and though less flavorful are more intensely fragrant.

Of course, this being The Perfect Pantry (which should be renamed the Do You Really Need Three of Everything Pantry), I have each of the main varieties on hand. My favorite Bourbon-type extract is made right next door in Massachusetts. The no-name Mexican vanilla comes courtesy of Cousin Martin, world traveler and primo procurer of good things for my kitchen.

This particular Mama Vanira vanilla, along with some lovely vanilla pods, traveled half way around the world in Martin's suitcase to reach my pantry. Here's his story:

The boat left Tahiti and we overnighted in the harbor of Moorea. Then I took a morning tour into the mountains to include a coconut pineapple plantation and a vanilla plantation. We didn't see the actual production of the liquid vanilla; but they had plants growing around the main buildings in various stages of ripeness on the way to harvest. It was definitely low tech but the Tahitian government was trying to foster relatively small-scale "boutique" Moorean and Tahitian vanilla as a niche product to compete with mass-marketed bourbon vanilla. If memory serves me correctly, this was the site:

After the bridge by the beach, a paved road runs up Moorea's central valley through pasture land, across which Warren Beatty and Annette Bening strolled in their flop movie Love Affair (the scenes with Katharine Hepburn were filmed in the white house on the hill to your right). You can stop at Lycée Agricole d'Opunohu (Opunohu Agricultural School) on the main road (www.formation-agricole-opunohu.org) to see vanilla and other plantations. The pineapple and vanilla plantations are located at or adjacent to the Lycée.

I appreciate the cherry overtone of Tahitian vanilla, as opposed to the spicy/woody taste of Mexican vanilla and the "purer" -- what we call vanilla -- taste of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla.

On that trip I saw an eclipse and the Easter Islands, both of which verge on the spiritual -- but the vanilla was right up there and a great way to start the trip!

Such a great story, and I value my little stash of Tahitian vanilla all the more because of the journey it took to get here.

I'm not much of a baker, but here's one fact I do know: you usually cream the vanilla with the shortening or butter portion of the ingredients, so that the fat encapsulates the vanilla and stabilizes it in the baking process.

Vanilla is one of the essential items in the pantry, indispensable for banana-chocolate chip bread, whoopie pies, and lavender custard -- but why not try it in barbecue sauce, too?

And should you be tempted to buy imitation vanilla extract at the supermarket (oh, don't tell me), and then don't know what to do with it because you surely will not want to use it for baking, here's an idea: add a teaspoon or two to a can of paint. It will neutralize the paint smell.

Sea bass with vanilla cream sauce

Adapted from a recipe on La Vanillére, this elegant dish -- a savory use for pure vanilla extract -- serves 4.


4 fillets of sea bass, mahi mahi or cod (1-1/4 lb total)
2 tsp olive oil
1 shallot, sliced thin
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste


In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the fish fillets gently until golden on each side, 3-4 minutes. Remove fish from pan and cover with foil to keep warm. In the same pan, lightly sauté shallots for 1 minute, adding a half teaspoon of olive oil if needed. Add vanilla extract, chicken stock and wine. Stir to combine. Slowly mix in cream, salt and pepper; cook for a few minutes until the sauce is reduced by half. Return the fish to the pan, coat with the cream sauce, and cook for 2 minutes until everything is nicely combined. Serve with jasmine rice.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Spice cake
Outrageous brownies
Grilled fruit with cardamom yogurt
Indian pudding
Chocolate truffles

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


My favourite country, Tonga, is a vanilla exporter, too, but I´ve never found any. Madagascar seems the way to go here. Pure aromatherapy

As where I am the opposite...give me vanilla over chocolate any day.

Beautiful post as always. Vanilla must be one of the most instantly recognizable aromas on this planet. Smelling vanilla gives me an instant surge of happiness :)

wonderful post!
had an unexpected, transcendent salad (nothing like an eclipse, or easter isl) at emeril's once - vanilla-shallot vinagrette over butter lettuce. wasn't the same when i made it at home - guessing it's because i own the paint-additive variety?

What great information! Kind of makes the phrase "plain vanilla" seem like a rather uninformed remark! I'm thrilled that you're a Charles Baldwin fan as well. I restock each time I visit the Berkshires, and it's the favorite in my pantry.

I don't think I've ever incorporate vanilla into a dish outside of dessert. This sounds like it would be a really tasty sauce.

While I do have vanilla extract in my pantry... Somewhere...

Both my wife and I prefer to use pure mexican vanilla for most of what we make. It's readily available here in Texas, though I'm sure it will be harder to find when we move.. But hey, that's what the Internet is for, right?!?

I'm a "vanilla" before "chocolate" any day
but will admit both have their place in any kitchen. But WOW!! vanilla on fish - I'm on my way to the market.

great recipe!! i'm making this very soon. I'm vanilla before choclate myself!

Lobstersquad, I've never tasted vanilla from Tonga. Will keep an eye out for it!

Peabody, seems you're not the only one, if my readers are any indication! For me, it's chocolate all the way.

Nupur, I agree, vanilla is a happy aroma.

Shawn, vanilla vinaigrette sounds to-die-for! Let's try it with some of my Massachusetts vanilla extract.

TW, I'm thrilled that you are a Charles Baldwin fan, too! I was just there a few weeks ago to stock up for winter, but they have a great mail order operation too.

Mike, I hardly ever use vanilla in savory dishes, which is what made this recipe so irresistible!

Jerry, the Mexican vanilla isn't too easy to find here in New England. Stock up while you're in Texas; it will keep in the pantry forever!

Pauline, hope you try this. It's unusual -- and very white....

Sabina, thank you. I think there are lots of vanilla-before-chocolate readers here.

Now I know what to do with the, uh, fake stuff I bought by accident!
When it comes to ice cream, I'm torn - I usually go for dark chocolate but if the only choice is milk I opt for the vanilla.

Great story, BTW

If you scoop out some oranges and let them sit with a vanilla bean for a few hours, it makes a wonderful topping for ice cream.

...to scent a can of paint- Too Funny! Hey I remember those Top Chefs slow cooking lobster in vanilla/butter/olive oil? Now we have some close proximity, thanks.

Hi Lydia, no imitation stuff for me, only the real deal. I've not tried vanilla is savoury dishes, so thanks for teaching me something new yet again.

Lydia, you always have great info! Also love the vanilla sauce with sea bass recipe. I just ate something similar lately and just adore it.

Vanilla extract is so versatile - it can be used in chocolate chip cookies and like you've just made, sea bass! I love the stuff. And we differ because if it came down to chocolate or vanilla, I'd pick vanilla :)

Katie, my cousin has had more than his share of adventures! And that fake stuff -- I'm not a food snob about most things (I am the person who eats Miracle Whip, after all...), but about vanilla extract I'm adamant. No imitation vanilla!

Rupert, you are so right -- and it's especially good with chocolate ice cream, isn't it?

Callipygia, I remember that Top Chef episode, too! At the time I thought it was weird, poaching in vanilla butter on the grill -- oh, I guess the judges thought it was weird, too -- but it did make me think about vanilla and seafood together.

Nora, it's fun to think of pantry items in new ways -- I'm trying to do that more often.

Anh, thank you! I hope you like this variation, too. It's quite mild.

Hillary, I can't believe so many Pantry readers would choose vanilla over chocolate! Maybe I'm the odd one. But I'd choose chocolate chip cookies over most anything....

What a unique flavor combination, I NEVER would have thought to combine vanilla and fish!

Btw, so sorry for not posting about drop and decorate cookies. I really wanted to, but as you can see from the fact that I haven't posted in almost a month, blog time has been at a crazy premium. Sorry for missing the boat on this one!

I always love learning something new from your site.


I bake with vanilla all the time but have never made a savory recipe - you have opened my mind! I learned long ago that the imitation stuff just won't cut it!

I got hooked on vanilla while sailing around French Polynesia with my family. We had a lovely young woman who cooked for us, and made a terrific dish of fish (don't remember what kind) with a vanilla sauce. Wow!

Thanks for reminding me of it. I think my sister has the recipe....

Oh what a great sounding recipe.
I've been absent from reading blogs for awhile. I love the drop and bake idea! Fantastic idea!

I had always wondered about the bourbon on the bottle, and now I know =)

I love the sound of the vanilla sauce, I'm printing out that one! Thank you.

i'm choc before vanilla too , but sometimes just for a change i'd go for the vanilla, specially when i'm making something at home with y pure vanilla bean extract or the bean itself :)

I've never tried vanilla in savoury , and am not really sure how it would taste. Maybe i need to open my self a bit more to try something like this.
Thanks :)

Lydia, you forgot to mention that vanilla grows in mauritius too! And my country is Reunion & Madagascar's neighbour:P
I've never thought about using my van. extract in savoury dishes, it must be awesome! Thanks for inspiring me dear friend:)

Ari, I'm definitely looking for more ways to add vanilla to savory dishes, and fish is a good place to start.

Paz, thank you so much.

Caroline, that imitation vanilla should not be in anyone's pantry. It is vile.

Toni, if you find the recipe, please share! I'll bet it was delicious.

Kristen, welcome back!

Kelly-Jane, I always assumed that vanilla was made from bourbon, until I learned more about it.

Kate, sometimes I go for chocolate and vanilla (after all, why should we have to choose?). I'm going to try the vanilla vinaigrette Shawn mentioned in his comment -- I need to think outside the box more, too.

Valentina, I didn't know about Mauritius vanilla! And now, of course, I will be looking for it so I can try it. Tell us more -- is it like the Madagascar vanilla? I'm excited to learn!!

Loved reading this post. I didn't realize that vanilla is the second most expensive spice! Good to know. I love chocolate, but vanilla ice cream has always been my favorite. And freshly made vanilla sugar--heaven!

Paint, pour it in paint . . . now I think you might sell that idea.
Do You Really Need Three of Everything Pantry . . . YES!

Sher, I think cardamom is also in the top three of most expensive spices to produce, because they are all (saffron, vanilla, cardamom) harvested by hand. Vanilla sugar is a real treat to have in the pantry, too.

MyKitchen, I agree -- more is better!

Oh, I am sooooo a vanilla person. Just seeing that bottle of vanilla extract had me smacking my lips. I've only used it in a limited number of savory dishes, but I've been looking for new savory ideas. Thanks for the recipe!

Dana, thanks, I'm always looking for ways to use vanilla in savory dishes. If you've posted a recipe you like, please share the link.

Wow, you have THREE types of vanilla. I'm jealous. I love this recipe, by the way. I just bought a pound of vanilla beans online and they're absolutely gorgeous. I'm looking for new ways to use them, and I love the idea of having vanilla in a savoury dish. When I smell them, the beans conjure up all kinds of scents, not all of which are sweet-based. Thanks for a really informative post.

Hanne, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Where did you buy your beans? I'm always looking for good sources (and new recipes...) to share with Pantry readers.

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