While studying dietetics in college, I had to take a quantity foods lab class. Essentially, we learned how to cook food in big batches to serve a large number of people in a short amount of time. In addition to bookwork, we ran a small cafeteria.
During the bakery rotation, we worked with a seasoned staff baker named Irene. She was a grandma’s grandma—kind, sweet, soft-spoken—and she shared all of her wisdom that came from decades of baking. She was well-known for her amazing baked goods, especially her chocolate chip cookies, and she bestowed her secret on all of her students: extra vanilla. Here are some more timeless cooking tips we learned from Grandma.
When vanilla is like salt
I like to explain adding extra vanilla like a cook would explain adding more salt—the goal isn’t to make the dish taste salty, it’s to brighten all the flavors. When you add extra vanilla to baked goods, they aren’t going to taste more vanilla-y, they’ll just taste better. I always add two to three times what’s called for in cookies, muffins, cakes, and quick breads. It has the most impact on delicately flavored baked goods like shortbread cookies and angel food cake.
Keep it real
I don’t remember Irene being picky about the type of vanilla extract, like Madagascar, Mexican, or Tahitian, but real vanilla is best. Skip the “econo-versions,” which are typically labeled as vanilla flavoring. They usually include a small amount of real extract plus synthetic flavors that just fall short on, well, vanilla. Make sure you avoid these other baking mistakes you didn’t know you were making, too.
Never leave Aldi without it
Vanilla is an extremely labor-intensive crop to grow, harvest, and process. If you knew all the work that goes into making vanilla extract, you’d understand why it’s so pricey.
You can save money by making your own vanilla extract (homemade vanilla also makes a great gift). Or you can do what I do and buy real vanilla extract when you’re stocking up on groceries at Aldi. Their vanilla is the most flavorful I’ve found for the cost, so I always grab a few bottles when I’m there. These are a few more things you should always consider buying at Aldi.
Irene has since passed away, but I’m sure her legendary cookies are still being made by students at Bevier Cafe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I’m telling you, if you want your baked goods to be so memorable someone writes about them 20 years later, add an extra splash of vanilla. Next, find out the reason you should be adding sugar to your spaghetti and meatballs (seriously!).