Once reserved for royalty, vanilla adds extraordinary aroma and taste to any dish.

"Plain vanilla" may have gotten its reputation for mediocrityfrom imitation vanilla, but such a so-so rating couldn't apply totrue vanilla, bean or extract. If so, how could vanilla trail onlysaffron as the world's most expensive spice?

"No spice is just one flavor, but rather a series of flavors,"says Bill Penzey, of Penzeys Spices in Brookfield, Wisconsin."Vanilla beans have a fruity, rich flavor, and there are more than250 identified flavor components in vanilla."

Patricia Rain, owner of the Vanilla Company in Santa Cruz,California, says, "Vanilla is the lasso that brings other flavorstogether." Its subtleties even enhance chocolate, for example,which tastes flat and dull without a touch of vanilla, shesays.

Vanilla's history as a prized ingredient dates back to beforethe Aztecs, who reserved it for royalty. Today, its laboriouscultivation and curing mean kings and commoners alike pay a highprice for the bean.

Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid variety whose blossoms openfor just hours one day a year. In that brief time, most vanillaorchids are hand-pollinated. Then, after the long, thin bean formsover the course of six weeks, it must be hand-picked and cured in acomplex process taking three to six months.

Precisely because of vanilla's rarity, price, and delicacy, itpays to know when to use vanilla extract and when to use thebean.

Use vanilla extract:
• When baking and cooking, where the vanilla will beexposed to heat for long periods of time. Since heat weakensvanilla's fruitlike flavor somewhat, Penzey says, there's no pointin using the more expensive bean.
• As an emulsifier in sweet and savory egg batters. Inwaffle and pancake batters, it helps smooth the mixture, Rain says.A drop or two is all you need.
• When you need vanilla's flavor quickly and don'thave time to steep a bean in the recipe's liquid.

Use the whole bean:
• In lightly cooked sauces and syrups. "I use the beanwhenever I want a larger bouquet of flavors," Rain says, "incrème anglaise, brandied apricots, and any caramel sauce."
• When the presentation of a dish calls for proof ofthe bean. The speckle of vanilla's black seeds in crèmebrûlée, Penzey says, tells guests they're worth theexpense.
• If you object to the alcohol used in extract butstill want vanilla's rich complexity.
• To flavor coffee. Drop a small piece of the hard, drybean in with coffee beans before you grind them, or store a vanillabean in your coffee canister for a little extra zip.

­Some desserts feature beans, others feature extract, andsome use both, which provides layers of flavor. Whichever youchoose, make these treats soon: Scientists have deduced that onescent above all others puts men in the mood for love―plainvanilla.

Even Sweeter Sugar
Vanilla-scented sugar can add wonderful flavor to bakedgoods. Instead of discarding a vanilla bean after using it, let thebean dry at room temperature, then drop it into a container ofgranulated sugar. One bean will permeate up to 5 pounds of sugarand will keep it flavorful for up to a year. More beans added overtime will increase the depth of the sugar's flavor.

Vanilla beans can also add flavor to powdered sugar. Dry severalbeans at room temperature, then grind them in a food processoralong with a cup of powdered sugar. Strain the mixture through afine sieve to remove the vanilla bean pieces. This mixture can beused in whipped cream, to sprinkle on cakes, or to coatcandies.

Accept No Substitutes
Though imitation vanilla is less expensive, we don't thinkit matches the rounded and complex flavors found in the genuinearticle.

Imitation vanilla is made from paper manufacturing byproductstreated with chemicals. Its flavor is one-dimensional and often hasa harsh finish.

In the grocery store, labeling terms can be confusing. Here'show to translate:
• "Vanilla ice cream" must contain vanilla beans and/orgenuine extract.
• "Vanilla-flavored ice cream" can contain up to 42percent artificial flavoring.
• "Artificial-flavored ice cream" contains onlyimitation flavoring.