Plain vanilla? Science says to think again. Hand-pollinated and cultivated in just a few places, vanilla is a descendant of tropical orchids. Like wine, it has terroir: Madagascan vanilla tastes classically sweet and creamy, for example, while Mexican has a spicy finish and Tahitian is more floral, with notes of cherry. Vanilla also teases the brain, research has shown, making us perceive foods as sweeter. Want proof? Try this lemonade recipe from The Watkins Company, a 151-year-old spice and extract company in Minnesota. It uses less sugar than most recipes and tastes just enough like cream soda to make you smile. And there’s nothing plain about that.
Sparkling Vanilla Lemonade
3/4 cup simple syrup*
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 liter chilled club soda
*In a small saucepan, cook 1/2 cup each sugar and water over medium heat until sugar dissolves, about 4 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes.
For max fizz, add the club soda just before serving. For max fun, consider a splash of vodka, too. Get a printable version of the recipe.
Pure Vanilla Extract Made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol, pure vanilla is often labeled by the beans’ origin, such as Madagascar or Uganda. Real vanilla works in any recipe, but if cost is a concern, save pure extract for dishes that cook to a low temperature or not at all, such as custards, frostings or this lemonade.
Imitation Vanilla This synthetic alternative to pure vanilla is cheaper—and not necessarily a bad choice. You’ll barely detect the difference (or may even prefer it) in baked goods. But avoid imitation vanilla in any recipe that’s not going in the oven, because uncooked, it can be cloying (think scented candle).
Pure Vanilla Bean Paste Admittedly a splurge, vanilla bean paste is an easy alternative to scraping the seeds out from pricey vanilla bean pods. Swap it one-for-one for extract in recipes where you want to see specks of vanilla, such as ice cream. Illinois’ Nielsen-Massey, another heritage Midwest vanilla company, makes a top-quality paste.