Vanilla Salt Is The Spice Missing From Your Pantry

Flavored salt isn't a new phenomenon. It's easy to find or make salt enhanced with flavors of fresh or dried herbs that are useful for a wide range of applications in the kitchen. Commonly used as a finishing salt, though it certainly has cooking applications, flavored salt is an easy, delicious way to layer flavor into dishes. Salt flavored with rosemary, smoke, and the zest of citrus fruits is easy to use, though you might think vanilla salt would have more limited applications. It's surprising how versatile vanilla salt can be and how much fun it is to play with.

Vanilla is a pretty potent flavor. We most commonly associate it with dessert; baked goods, crème brûlée, and ice cream would fall flat if it weren't for the rich, warm, exotic flavors that come from the beans produced by the Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis orchids. While we don't typically think of vanilla and salt together, the combination is absolutely magical. It has far more uses than you'd think, and once you've tried it, you'll never want to be without it.

What is vanilla salt?

Vanilla salt is pretty simple. It's salt — usually sea salt — infused with the sticky, grainy paste scraped from the inside of vanilla beans. It's not difficult to make vanilla salt, though you will want to select your ingredients with care. Fresh vanilla beans are key, and choosing good quality beans will ensure your vanilla salt carries the most flavor.

Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans are prized for their plump, flavorful consistency, carrying a little more moisture than other beans, which means their seed-laden interior is ideal for making vanilla salt. Real Bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar may be expensive, but they're worth it, as the depth of flavor is important for vanilla salt.

Don't be tempted to cheap out on your vanilla salt by using imitation vanilla flavoring. Not only will using a liquid extract alter the texture of your salt, but the flavor of real vanilla beans is far more complex than its imitators. Flaky sea salt infused with real vanilla beans is the only way to go for vanilla salt.

How should you use vanilla salt?

We'll start with the obvious: vanilla salt will wake up your desserts. Even if you don't perceive a dish as salty, salt is a vital component of nearly every recipe because it accentuates flavors. When you combine rich vanilla flavor with salt, you've got a powerful ingredient on your hands. Everything from whipped cream to fudge and caramel can benefit from your vanilla salt, adding a layer of complexity to your desserts and baked goods.

Cocktails, too, are a wonderland for vanilla salt. Adding a pinch to an Irish coffee kicks up all the flavors. Using vanilla salt for the rim of a cocktail like a paloma or a margarita adds unexpected interest, and a touch of vanilla salt in a classic like a whiskey sour or old fashioned will play up the vanilla component from the oak barrels used for aging whiskey.

But savory fare is the most fun arena in which vanilla salt plays. Try it on grilled asparagus, popcorn, and fresh heirloom tomatoes. The flavors may be unusual, but they won't be boring. Even a steak can benefit from a sprinkle of vanilla salt, either as a component of a spice rub — maybe with a bit of ground coffee and spicy cayenne — or used as a finishing salt or part of a compound butter that tops the steak when you take it off the grill. The only limit is your imagination and willingness to experiment.

Where can you buy vanilla salt?

While you may be able to find vanilla sugar at your local grocery store, you're not going to find vanilla salt everywhere. Vanilla salt can be purchased from a number of specialty spice companies, like Hepp's Salt Co, which sells a 2-ounce jar for $8.25. Beanilla offers their Vanilla Fleur de Sel in a 3.5-ounce jar for $16.54. You can also find artisan vanilla salt on Flour & Herbs, which sells a Bourbon Vanilla Sea Salt in a 3.5-ounce jar for $12.99. Amazon lists several producers of vanilla salt, with prices that range from roughly $3 to $6 per ounce. 

Vanilla salt isn't as widely available as it probably should be, given its wide range of delicious applications, and since it's so easy to make — requiring just two ingredients — the DIY route is probably your best and most cost-effective way to explore the spice. And don't worry if you've made more salt than you think you can reasonably use. A few extra cute jars and some ribbon make vanilla salt a thoughtful host gift or a wonderful addition to a gift basket destined for another food lover.