Which is better: vanilla extract, powder, or paste?
We tested and rated pure extracts, imitation extracts, and whole beans and thought we had included nearly all things vanilla. Shopping at a gourmet food shop recently, however, we came across two more kinds of vanilla. Vanilla powder is an alcohol-free product that is simply vanilla extract dried with a natural cornstarch base. Vanilla paste is a syrupy concoction made of both vanilla extract and beans mixed with sugar, water, and a natural thickener. According to package labels, both products can be used teaspoon for teaspoon as a substitute for vanilla extract. To find out how they compare to extract, we made three yellow cakes, using pure extract, powder, and paste in the various samples. We also made three batches of panna cotta. We used extract and paste in two batches and a whole vanilla bean in a third batch. (Since vanilla powder should be used only as a dry ingredient in baked goods, it made sense to try a bean in its place for this test.)
How did these newfangled vanillas perform? Our tasters were nearly unanimous in their preference for the yellow cake made with vanilla powder. "Clean, pure vanilla flavor," wrote one taster, while another said, "BIG vanilla." The vanilla paste had some fans, but most tasters found little difference between the cakes made with extract and paste. However, if panna cotta-or custards or pastry cream-is in your repertoire, vanilla paste is the way to go. Second only to vanilla bean (and a very close second at that), the vanilla paste gave the panna cotta a robust vanilla flavor with no "boozy bite," a consistent complaint about the third-place panna cotta made with extract. Like the sample made with vanilla bean, the panna cotta made with vanilla paste had flecks of vanilla seeds-in fact, the two samples were hard to tell apart.
While vanilla extract is certainly sufficient in these recipes, you can do better. If you bake cakes and cookies galore (especially recipes where the flavor of vanilla is front and center), then vanilla powder is an excellent option. And, if you make a lot of custards, consider trying vanilla paste—it's nearly as good as a whole bean and easier to use.