Ina Garten's Preferred Brand Of 'Good Vanilla'

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Ina Garten is known for turning out mouthwatering desserts including the iconic Beatty's chocolate cake, tres leches cake with berries, chocolate banana cream pie, and her signature honey bourbon cake. To make these desserts, the Barefoot Contessa relies on what she refers to as her favorite flavor of all, "the good vanilla," which can be found in different forms in her pantry. There's her homemade vanilla extract (which we'll talk about later), and then there's the label that Garten turns to when she says store bought will work just fine: Nielsen-Massey.

The Illinois-based company has been making Garten's vanilla extract of choice for more than a century now. It remains family-owned and is widely used by professional chefs and at the best pastry schools and restaurants across the country. Nielsen-Massey says it obtains its vanilla beans from some of the top vanilla-growing places in the world including Madagascar, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, and Tahiti. As with all high quality vanilla, Nielsen-Massey's Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract is pricey; a 2 ounce bottle costs just under $16 on Amazon.

But there's a reason good vanilla is expensive. Vanilla beans are notoriously difficult to grow; it can take three years for a vanilla flower to bloom. And once that finally happens, the farmer has less than a day in which to carefully hand pollinate it so that it can grow beans.

The reason Ina Garten keeps store bought extract on hand

Even though Garten is partial to Nielsen-Massey's extract, by her own admission, homemade vanilla is still one of her favorite ingredients, per YouTube. To make your own, she recommends taking a jar both wide and deep enough to accommodate vanilla beans without bending them. She then says to start with enough beans to fill the jar before adding enough vodka to completely cover them. Keep your jar in a cool, dark place, and you will be rewarded with homemade extract in just over a month's time, although Garten says its best to wait six months. The low-maintenance extract needs to stay in that dark and cool environment; it also needs to be topped off with fresh vanilla beans and vodka to keep supplies steady. 

So, if homemade vanilla is Garten's favorite ingredient, why does she keep commercial vanilla on hand? "While I do make my own vanilla extract, I don't assume that people at home have homemade vanilla on hand, so I use store-bought vanilla in my recipes," the celebrity chef tells fans via Ask Ina. "I always try to use ingredients that people can find at the grocery store."