Vanilla is one of the most important flavors in any baker’s kitchen, so you’ll always find a bottle (or three) of vanilla extract tucked away in the pantry. Vanilla extract is an easy ingredient to use, but it isn’t the only option for adding vanilla flavor to your baked goods. You can use real vanilla beans or opt for vanilla bean paste, which is becoming much more widely available and can often be found alongside vanilla extract in the baking aisle.
Vanilla bean paste, which is sometimes simply referred to as vanilla paste, is a thick, syrupy liquid that has vanilla bean flecks suspended in it. These flecks can be both vanilla bean seeds and very finely ground vanilla bean pods. The syrup is a sugar syrup (often glucose) and sometimes contains natural thickeners to allow the vanilla bean flecks to remain suspended without sinking to the bottom of the bottle. Since it is made with a syrup, not with alcohol, vanilla bean paste is much thicker and more “paste-like” than vanilla extract.
Vanilla extract an alcohol solution made by macerating vanilla beans until their flavor is drawn out. Pure vanilla extract is regulated by the FDA has having a certain concentration of vanilla beans per gallon of alcohol used to make it. Unlike the syrup in the paste, the alcohol in vanilla extract will evaporate during baking and will leave on the vanilla flavor behind. That said, there is typically such a small amount of extract or paste used that this rarely makes much of a difference in your finished baked goods.
Some bakers prefer extract to paste, while others prefer paste to extract. Both typically have excellent vanilla flavors, especially if you are starting with a high quality brand. Vanilla bean paste can be substituted for vanilla extract in just about all recipes, with the very uncommon exception of recipes that note you specifically may not use the paste. You can also substitute regular vanilla extract into any recipe that calls for vanilla bean paste, if you don’t have it on hand.
Most brands of vanilla bean paste have a strong vanilla flavor, but the flavor isn’t always going to be stronger simply because of the presence of vanilla bean flecks (especially since not all of those flecks are actual vanilla seeds). I use vanilla bean paste in recipes where I want to get the look of whole vanilla bean without using a whole bean, as the paste is less expensive than whole beans are. It is excellent in most ice cream recipes and will give a fantastic look to vanilla buttercream frostings. In recipes where you can’t see the vanilla bean flecks, you may want to skip the paste and save it for recipes where you’ll be able to see it better.