What is a Vanilla Pod?
The vanilla pod is the natural form of the spice vanilla, which derives from orchids of the genus Vanilla, that originate in Mexico and Central America. Vanilla is an expensive spice, due to the intensity of labour required to grow it, but despite this it has become one of the most commonly used spices in modern baking and patisserie.
The vanilla pod itself is a sheath, within which the vanilla seeds are contained. These vanilla fruits are removed from the plant by hand before they are fully ripe, and then dried and treated over a period of 6 months until they become the dried, dark brown vanilla pods that are then used in baking.
How to use a Vanilla pod?
The vanilla pod can be used a few different ways in baking but the most common is by scraping the interior seeds, and infusing the seeds and the sheath into a liquid or putting the seeds directly into a mix to act as a flavouring. The sheath should always be removed if being added for infusion, however the seeds can be kept in any product without issue.
When splitting a vanilla pod, the best method is to slice down one side with a sharp knife so you can open it out flat, and use the blunt side of the same knife to scrape along the length of the pod on both sides to remove the seeds. It is important to always take care as the pod is very small, and cutting through can cause pieces of the sheath to end up in the seeds mixture which can have a negative impact on texture in a finished product.
How about Vanilla Extract?
Many recipes will call for vanilla extract, or essence, as opposed to the vanilla pod. It is important to understand how to use a vanilla essence or extract, and how it differs from vanilla in its more natural form.
Firstly, the difference between an essence and an extract. An essence will normally be a manufactured flavouring, made with artificial flavourings and colourings, whereas an extract is normally made by soaking vanilla beans in water and small quantities of ethyl alcohol. An extract is widely considered to produce a more natural and distinguishable flavour and aroma.
Both extracts and essences are used the same way, that is usually added to a mixture alongside the wet ingredients. Due to their composition, both essences and extracts can be added to almost all recipes without disrupting its texture or integrity, so the amount used is mainly down to personal preference regarding the strength of the vanilla flavour.
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