Have you ever stumbled across a recipe that called for something you hadn't heard of before? This happened to me recently as I was baking . . . a recipe called for vanilla sugar. I thought I had read a typo for a minute and needed vanilla and sugar. It turns out, I was wrong. Though we have talked about a lot of different flour varieties, there are far fewer sugar varieties out there, and I thought I knew them all. So if you have come across a recipe asking for vanilla sugar, never fear, I've done the research and created a little guide to help you through the vanilla sugar process. Keep reading to learn about what the heck vanilla sugar even is, how you should use it, and when it's okay to substitute for other ingredients you may have on hand!
What Is Vanilla Sugar?
During my momentary panic, a quick Google search showed me that vanilla sugar was actually just a mixture of vanilla and sugar (well, that seems pretty self-explanatory). It turns out that this is an extremely common ingredient in Europe, specifically in countries like Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Vanilla sugar is used in their traditional desserts, mostly in cookies and cakes. However, it can be a lot tougher to find vanilla sugar in the United States or other non-European countries, so this can make things a little more difficult! However, the important piece of note here is that vanilla sugar is not quite just a mixture of vanilla extract with sugar. That would be kind of mushy and gross, right? Vanilla sugar is actually sugar that has been infused with vanilla over a long period of time, so it still retains that nice granular texture that we love in sugar (and need for our perfect baked goods!), but with an added flavor of vanilla for a unique pop!
Where Can I Find Vanilla Sugar?
If you're in the United States, you're not entirely out of luck buying pre-packaged vanilla sugar. You may be able to find some at a specialty grocery store, and a few big box stores carry it as well. If you do find it, however, you may be a little concerned when you see the price tag, as vanilla sugar is going to be a good bit pricier than your typical baking sugars. The great news is that you can actually make your own vanilla sugar fairly easily. If you need it today, you may just need to splurge, but if you have a little time, then it is actually fairly easy to make at home. How, you ask? Let us see . . .
Making Your Own Vanilla Sugar
As mentioned above, making your own vanilla sugar is quite a simple process. The hardest part about it is that it simply takes time for the vanilla to infuse into the sugar. To start, you will need a vanilla bean and about 2 cups of sugar (feel free to up that proportionally to whatever quantity you need). Caster or superfine sugar should work best, and if you are not familiar with it, then feel free to read more about it here, but any sugar will do!
- Put all of your sugar into a glass or plastic air-tight jar.
- Slice open the vanilla bean carefully so that the seeds are facing up.
- Use the back of your knife to scoop out the tiny black vanilla beans (this is where the magic happens!).
- Place all of the vanilla bean seeds and the open vanilla bean into the jar with the sugar.
- Take a hint from The Beatles (or Ferris Bueller) and shake it up! Shake your sugar and the vanilla beans until everything is evenly dispersed throughout the jar. This will allow for the best infusion of odors and flavors from the beans.
- Store for anywhere between a week and a month before using. Nothing bad will happen if you use it earlier, of course, it will just have less time to infuse the vanilla into the sugar, so you will not get quite as heavy of a vanilla flavor in your dishes. (Don’t forget to sift out the vanilla beans prior to use!)
There you go--voila! A delicious treat that is literally good enough to eat! Plus, as an added bonus, doing anything with vanilla beans will make your entire house, hands, and clothes smell delicious for days! Many bakers like to make a small batch of vanilla sugar whenever they are using vanilla beans. Old beans will work fine on their own, albeit potentially for a less strong sugar. If you are using beans in a different recipe, though, just buy one extra to throw in a jar of sugar--you won't regret it!
Different Types of Beans
If you (like me) were unaware that there are different types of vanilla beans, then you're in for a treat! There are a lot of different varieties, but three common ones are Tahitian, Madagascar Bourbon, and Mexican. They all have different flavor profiles, and any vanilla will work to make vanilla sugar, but our favorites are Tahitian and Madagascar Bourbon. These two have more delicate flavors that are perfect for baking! As to what type of bean is best, it will depend on what you are using your sugar for, and there is a decent chance that your local store will only carry one or two varieties. We dare you to try them all if you can find them!
How to Use Vanilla Sugar
You may be wondering why people do not just add vanilla to their recipes instead of going through this entire process of making vanilla sugar, and that is a great question. The truth is, vanilla extract reacts very differently in recipes than vanilla sugar straight from the bean, and if you use vanilla bean in your recipes, the infusion process will not take place quite as much. Thus, vanilla sugar serves its own unique purpose in giving your recipe the lightest touch of vanilla flavor without changing the overall texture profile.
There are several great uses for vanilla sugar that are unique and could not work well with vanilla extract or simply adding fresh vanilla beans. Many people love to keep vanilla sugar around for sprinkling in various moments. Try vanilla sugar in your coffee for an extra touch of (natural) flavor, or sprinkle it on your morning cereal or fruit to bring in the warmth of the vanilla. It is perfect to have on hand for these little touches, and we challenge you to use vanilla sugar in a new, unexpected way!
Of course, you can actually bake with this sugar too! Vanilla sugar is in no way limited to sprinkling over other dishes. Various recipes will call for vanilla sugar, like the one I was working on earlier this week! The vanilla flavor will be present in your end product, so it follows that this is a popular ingredient in cakes, cookies, and other decadent treats! Vanilla sugar is sold in Europe in small sachets, which can be added to many different recipes in place of vanilla extract. If you made your own vanilla sugar, make sure that you are using it in a recipe that calls for the type of sugar you used to make it: fine, regular, or powdered, for instance. If you use the wrong sugar accidentally, your texture could be off in the end, even though it will still smell and taste delicious!
It is always important to consider the shelf life of new ingredients, especially those you are making at home yourself. If there is no date to read, then how will you know when it is bad? We always recommend trusting your nose and eyes: if something looks or smells bad in any ingredient, then play it safe and chuck it out! Vanilla sugar is actually a pretty simple one, in that it should theoretically never go “bad.” Neither sugar nor vanilla contains any ingredients that will go rancid or bad, in a traditional sense, so if nothing else creeps into your storage container then you should be safe to eat vanilla sugar forever! However, sugar can harden and vanilla beans can lose their flavor after about two years, so we would advise whipping up a new batch at that point--I mean, c’mon, it has been two years, it is about time!
If you have never used vanilla sugar before, we promise you will not regret it! With its delicious aroma and flavor, your entire home will appreciate you baking with a little extra vanilla infusion. Many people like to give vanilla sugar jars as a gift--doesn’t the smell of fresh vanilla just remind you of the holidays? Plus, it is probably something your friends have not used before! We recommend trying out all the cake and cookie recipes you can find with vanilla sugar, and we are happy to taste test if you need some help!