Not plain vanilla: Queen of all flavoring

Sheryl Sollars - Welcome To My Kitchen

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part column to be continued in Saturday’s News Journal.

The most important thing you need to learn about cooking and baking is the importance of making sure your food is properly seasoned. I have had some “good” food that would have been “excellent” if it had just been seasoned properly.

Of course, seasoning is based on the opinion of those eating the food. Some like more salt on a dish and others like something with more sugar. You have to learn what flavoring you and your family enjoy and adjust your food accordingly.

But remember, most foods taste better when certain flavors are added.

Many times I have been asked for a recipe because it “tasted so good.” Later they came back and said, “Mine just didn’t taste as good as yours.” It is not because I added a secret ingredient, but because I tasted it while I was preparing the dish and adjusted the seasoning to my liking.

You cannot always go by the recipe’s amount of seasoning, but rather by your own personal taste.

My advice: Always taste before you serve.

Another hint is to remember if it is something that will be sitting for a while before your serve it, the flavor my change before serving. For instance, starchy foods usually will absorb the amount of seasoning (especially salt) and needs to be a little on the salty side when first made.

A good example is pasta or potato salad along with spaghetti and macaroni and cheese. After a few times of preparing the dish, you will learn just how to adjust your seasonings to your liking.

When it comes to baking, I believe that vanilla is the QUEEN of all flavoring. It is the one thing that I feel you cannot bake without. It is what makes a dish “royal” in flavor.

Now, I am not saying it should be added to all foods, after all, you would not add it to meats and vegetables. But try it on fruit and other sweet things and see how it perks up the flavor. Fresh peaches are something I always add vanilla to (just a drop!) for a full unique flavor.

Surprisingly, vanilla really emphasizes the flavor of chocolate. Don’t ever make fudge, or other chocolate desserts without adding at least 1 teaspoon vanilla. Most cake and cookie recipes call for this wonderful flavor and you should never omit it from your baking.

In fact, most things that are baked (other than meats and casseroles), call for vanilla. Another hint is to add a teaspoon of vanilla to your boxed cake mixes (especially yellow and white). It will make them taste more like homemade. Of course, don’t forget to add it to your frosting as well.

I never make waffles or pancakes without adding vanilla flavoring. It really gives the finished product a rich distinct flavor.

Good vanilla is not cheap, but is one flavoring where it is important to use the BEST product available or at least that you can afford.

Only use pure vanilla never the artificial flavoring. One of the best on the market is “WATKINS”. Many of you will remember the friendly “Watkins Man” who came door to door in the “olden days”. Theirs is one exception that you can use imitation and still get a good flavor.

Those days are gone but it still is sold by independent dealers and many can be bought in many cooking and kitchen food stores.

Of course, like many products, it can be found on the internet. When vanilla is a must, like ice cream, creme brûlée or rice pudding, vanilla beans are the best answer. They are expensive and require a little more work to get the flavor from the bean, but they are worth the cost and effort.

When I operated my gourmet food shop in Florida, I sold “PERPETUAL” vanilla kits. Although I don’t believe they are available anywhere locally, you can still make your own.

Although perpetual means “lasting an eternity”, this vanilla extract won’t last forever. But if made properly, it will last for about 1 year. The first and most important thing you need is a bottle to prepare and store the extract in. I suggest that you use an old vanilla bottle or any other 16 to 20 oz. bottle about that size and shape. The best bottles are those that are tall and have some amount of “neck” on them such as salad dressing or small ketchup bottles. Once you find your bottle, make sure it is clean and free from any smell from the previous contents. You are now ready to make vanilla. You will need 3-4 vanilla beans (the more beans, the stronger the flavor) and vodka.

Now don’t panic, after all, you are not going to drink it! If you check the contents of pure vanilla extract you will see that alcohol is the main ingredient and sometimes the only additive other than vanilla beans and the alcohol is destroyed by heat when it is used in cooking.

Start by placing the beans on a clean cutting board and make a slit the length of the bean but NOT deep enough to penetrate the other side.

Place the beans into the tall bottle. Finally, fill the bottle with vodka and replace the lid, making sure you seal it as tight as possible.

Now, sit back and BE PATIENT!

Place it on your cabinet shelf and do not use or open your “concoction” for about 60 days so the bean flavor and alcohol can set up. I try to shake the mixture every week to help the process along. This new concoction will turn into the best pure vanilla extract you’ve ever used.

Now here is where “perpetual” comes in. Each time you use some of the extract, you replace it with equal amount of vodka.

Shake it and return it to shelf. I suggest that it be placed where it is dark.

With this process you are continuing to replenish and restore your vanilla supply. To be assured that you do not lose any of the rich flavor I add a new vanilla bean after 6 months.

At the end of a year, I NO LONGER add more vodka and I use up the extract I have. I then remove the beans and start all over.

Sheryl Sollars, a Clinton County native, is an accomplished cook and homemaker. She contributes her column “Welcome to My Kitchen” out of her love of homemaking and of sharing her thoughts with her readers. If you have cooking questions or a recipe you want to share, please contact Sheryl at

Sheryl Sollars

Welcome To My Kitchen