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Vanilla Goes Way Beyond Dessert


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Starting off with American fare, you have a Tex-Mex classic, chili. Whether of the “con carne" or the “4-alarm" variety, the vanilla dampens the bite, allowing the spices and spiciness of the chili to stand out. Vanilla also smoothes out the flavor of tomato-based barbecue sauces. Traveling south of the border, Mexican and Central American salsas can benefit from vanilla’s flavor-enhancing abilities, as can both red and green traditional Mexican tomato sauces.

For the spicy foods mentioned above, Mexican vanilla is the best fit. While you might expect Mexican vanilla, which has a bit of spiciness to its own flavor profile, to just add to the spiciness of the dish, it complements the spiciness in such a way as to smooth out the heat and acidity.

Jumping across the ocean, Italian food is, of course, plentiful with tomato sauces. Here, a little Madagascar Bourbon vanilla can smooth out the tangy edge of marinara and pomodoro (both basic tomato sauces, but the latter is cooked longer), the salty and spicy flavors of puttanesca (with its notable anchovies, capers and chiles), and the “angriest" of arrabbiata sauces (with its heat coming from red pepper).

Looking to other lands for other dishes that might benefit from a touch of vanilla, Spain provides us with gazpachos and paellas. Greece offers moussaka. And India, Pakistan and other South Asian cuisines give us chutneys and curries. Really, most cuisines offer some dish that features tomatoes, and vanilla provides added nuance to each dish’s flavor.

Vanilla and meats

For beef, lamb and pork, using vanilla in wine, barbecue and other sauces counters some of the savoriness of the meat with sweetness. Consider pushing the envelope even further by creating such combinations as an apricot-mango barbecue sauce using Madagascar Bourbon pure vanilla extract. Or, how about a vanilla rub? Try using a vanilla bean paste, and then just salt and pepper.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for vanilla to work its “flavor potentiating" magic, consider adding it to a marinade of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, pepper and brown sugar for pork tenderloin or flank steaks. Vanilla can also enhance the flavors in Mexican mole sauces, a trick that some chefs have been known to employ.

Most of the above sauces and marinades will taste delicious with poultry, as well. Chicken also pairs nicely with a cherry-vanilla sauce. And for duck, you can’t go wrong with a vanilla glaze.

Vanilla and seafood

As an enhancer, vanilla can be used to bring out the flavors of sauces and marinades used in seafood dishes. For instance, prepare a traditional beurre blanc sauce, and then add a hint of vanilla—enough to get a little vanilla flavor, but it’s also enhancing other flavors in the sauce. You’ve now updated a classic with an unmistakable and welcoming flavor note. Similarly, since many seafood dishes feature citrus sauces, and vanilla counteracts the acidity of citrus fruits, the addition of vanilla adds to the dish’s complexity and nuances.

The rich, creamy flavor of vanilla has also been used to great success as a featured player in numerous seafood dishes. For instance, you can pair crab cakes with a vanilla rémoulade or seared scallops with a vanilla cream sauce. In Highwood, IL, Chef Thierry Lefeuvre of Froggy’s French Café combines such ingredients as a vanilla bean, white wine and fish glacé (among other ingredients) for his delectable Lobster in Vanilla Sauce.

Final course

Having now discussed numerous starters and entrées in which the addition of vanilla has delicious results, it’s time to move on to the final course—home territory to many a vanilla-accented application. That said, if you’re not in the mood for a sweet dessert, you could always follow the lead of Chef Elizabeth Falkner of San Francisco’s Orson. She offers a cheese plate with a dollop of house-made vanilla honey.

Craig Nielsen and Dan Fox are CEO and director of sales, respectively, of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, Inc., a third-generation, family-owned company that has been crafting premium vanillas and flavors for over 100 years, and Fox is a member of the Research Chefs Association. For more information, visit or e-mail

More Savory Vanilla Inspirations

Vanilla has the ability to accent a wide variety of savory dishes. “I have recently seen vanilla extract and beans being used in more savory recipes," says Margaret Walther, food technologist, applications, Synergy Flavors, Inc., Wauconda, IL. “Anywhere a touch of sweetness is called for, vanilla fits in well. Vanilla is a wonderful complement to vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and squash in casseroles and soups. It is often used to temper the acidity of sauces; for example, vinaigrette dressings, mustards, tomato sauce and fruit salsas." She notes that even meat can be enhanced by vanilla. “Ham glazed with Dr Pepper or root beer—which both contain vanilla—is a popular recipe."

And at the 2010 IFT in Chicago, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY, hosted an event that included a dinner with vanilla featured in every course. The appetizers included endive spear with blue cheese and vanilla mousse, goat-cheese tartlets with fresh tomato and vanilla relish, and vanilla-buttered popcorn. The main course featured summer squash salad with pine nuts and citrus-vanilla vinaigrette, walleye pike or chicken breast with sweet corn and vanilla coulis, and new potato salad with smoky vanilla aioli. A dessert of profiteroles with chocolate ice cream and vanilla sauce provided a sweet finish to the meal.

The Editors

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