If you're a frequent baker, you already know that vanilla extract, a pantry staple for all kinds of projects, has skyrocketed in price over the past few years. Decent quality pure vanilla extract will run you about $5 per ounce, or $20 to 25 a bottle. Vanilla bean paste, which is something I use whenever I want to have the actual little vanilla seeds in my recipe, is at almost $7.50 an ounce, or $30 a bottle. Single vanilla beans are going for as much as $10 to $15 per depending on the source. Vanilla prices have shot up for a number of reasons, meaning that holiday baking season is a lot more expensive than it used to be.
At my house, where I do a tremendous amount of recipe testing, I often invest in a commercial sized bottle of vanilla paste that will last a whole year. Last year’s bottle is on its final dregs, and a new one is now going for $150. But I recently found a trick that is saving my baking and reducing my dependence on vanilla in a very delicious way. I am, as many of you know, married to a lovely man from Kentucky. Which means that at any given time in our house, we are in possession of about eleven different bottles of bourbon.
A while back I was looking at my bottle of vanilla paste and noticed for the first time that it said Bourbon on it. Not because there is bourbon in it, but because the beans are sourced from an area of Madagascar that used to be named Bourbon. But it got me thinking. Some of the bourbons we drink at home have a decidedly vanilla backnote. And vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla pods in alcohol to extract the flavor. I wonder if I could swap out actual bourbon for vanilla extracts when baking?
I asked my Kentucky boy which bourbon had the most vanilla notes, and he said to try the Four Roses Single Barrel. I gave it a sniff, and indeed there was a distinct vanilla backnote to the nose. So, I added it to a batch of cookies. And while the flavor wasn’t pure vanilla, it was more like a combination of vanilla and caramel and maple, it was delicious. As with using vanilla extract the alcohol burns off in baking and you are just left with flavor. And at about $1.45 an ounce compared to the $5 an ounce for vanilla it seems like a bargain.
I don’t use them interchangeably. If something really needs strong vanilla punch, like vanilla ice cream or custard or the like, I stick with the real deal. But in baking I think I now use bourbon about 35 to 40 percent of the time. I like the complexity it brings, and the way it naturally supports caramel, toffee, and molasses flavors. It is great in anything with spice or ginger or chocolate.
So as you embark on your holiday baking, think about reaching for a different bottle. Bourbon might just get you through the vanilla season.
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