Sponsored By

Vanilla Goes Way Beyond DessertVanilla Goes Way Beyond Dessert

February 23, 2011

9 Min Read
Vanilla Goes Way Beyond Dessert

By Craig Nielsen and Dan Fox, Contributing Editors

What comes to mind when you think of vanilla? For most, it would be the sweet, delicious desserts that feature vanillas classic, rich creamy flavorvanilla ice cream, sugar cookies, crème brûlée. But, this renown is not without its price. Because we associate vanilla so specifically with sweet applications, we tend to overlook its ability to play a flavorful role in other parts of the menu, especially savory dishes.

The complexity of vanilla

Yes, theres a sweetness to vanilla. But, depending on where the bean was cultivated, other aromas and flavors come through, as well. For instance, beans from the Bourbon Island of Madagascar, the most widely used beans, have a mellow creaminess. Mexican beans possess a certain spicinessa marriage of sweet and woody notes, with a deep, spicy character similar to cloves or nutmeg. Tahitian beans, which are a species of vanilla found only in the French Polynesian Islands, intermingle floral and fruity aromas, while Indonesian beans have a sharper, woodier scent.

Vanilla beans have over 300 compounds that make up the whole of their flavor. Some of these compounds are sweet, such as the natural vanillin found within the bean. And while vanillin is the most dominant, it actually only constitutes a tiny percentage of the total number of flavor components (which gives you some insight into why artificial vanillin, which features only this one compound, pales in comparison to natural vanilla). The other flavor components run the gamut, featuring such notes as honey, nutty, anise and peppery, and its this multitude of flavor components that, as well discuss, enables vanilla to complement such a wide range of ingredients.

Vanilla also acts as a flavor enhancer (or potentiator), so it enhances" our ability to taste other flavors by intensifying those flavors. So, for example, when used in smaller amounts so as not to overpower the flavor its meant to be intensifying, vanilla can be used to boost such flavors as coffee, nuts and fruits.

In fact, when used with citrus fruits, vanilla covers the fruits acidic bite, giving them a creamier taste. For dairy products, it helps increase the richness and creaminess. And, of course, what we know as chocolate flavor in ice cream, cakes, bars, cookies, etc. would not be the same without vanillas smoothing influence.

For these reasons, many product and menu developers have begun to look beyond desserts and are using vanilla in the preparation of dishes throughout the meal. Sometimes vanilla is the main ingredient, providing a sweet creaminess to the flavor. Other times, it plays a supporting role, complementing other flavors and enhancing the overall nuances of the dish.

Soups and salads

In soups and bisques, vanilla often acts as a flavor enhancer, helping to intensify the headlining flavors in pumpkin, butternut squash and cauliflower soups, while also adding a perception of creaminess. Chef Karla Lawrence of Shandies restaurant and Artisan Kitchen catering and take-out, both in Paducah, KY, adds vanilla to her Creamy Tomato Basil Soup to mellow out the acidic bite inherent in the tomatoes and, in so doing, smoothes out the flavor.

For any of these, just a few drops of pure vanilla extract are all you need (about one-eighth to one-quarter teaspoon of vanilla per quart). Madagascar Bourbon vanilla will add to the creaminess, but you can experiment with other varietals (for instance, Mexican pairs nicely with tomatoes) to see how they influence the overall flavor. Just err on the lighter side. Add too much, and its no longer enhancing the flavors in the soup, it becomes one of the noticeable flavors.

For salads, the sweet creaminess of vanilla can be incorporated into a number of different dressings. For example, mix together vanilla, corn oil, chives, and salt and pepper to create a simple, yet delightful, vanilla salad dressing. Or, create a dressing in which vanilla shares the stage with other flavors, such as a vanilla-almond vinaigrette or a balsamic vinaigrette infused with vanilla beans.

As always, the choice of dressing is going to depend on the ingredients within the salad. But, thanks to vanillas ability to complement and play off of vegetables (from root to leafy green), as well as fruits, nuts and seafood, there are a wide range of salads vanilla can brighten with its sweet, creamy flavor. Tahitian vanilla, which works best in cold, no-heat applications, pairs nicely with tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers. And, in fruit salads, adding a little over the top simply pops the natural flavor and independence of the salads individual fruits.

Vanilla and tomatoes

As mentioned in reference to tomato soup, vanilla complements tomatoes by smoothing out the fruits acidic bite. So, any dish featuring tomatoes can be enhanced with vanilla. And, because tomatoes make up the foundation of so many dishes from cuisines around the world, there are many possible applications.

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 vanillas 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 dishs 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 youre 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 cant 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 vanillaenough to get a little vanilla flavor, but its also enhancing other flavors in the sauce. Youve 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 dishs 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 Froggys 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, its time to move on to the final coursehome territory to many a vanilla-accented application. That said, if youre not in the mood for a sweet dessert, you could always follow the lead of Chef Elizabeth Falkner of San Franciscos 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 nielsenmassey.com or e-mail [email protected].

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 beerwhich both contain vanillais 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

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the healthy food and beverage industry.
Join 47,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like