What is French Vanilla?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “French vanilla” technically describes a particular type of custard base for vanilla ice cream. This base is associated with a strong vanilla flavor and odor, a rich golden color, and small flecks of vanilla beans. As a result, companies sometimes market things like candles and body lotions as having this scent, capitalizing on the exoticism of all things French and the association of luxury. While this usage is incorrect, it is extremely common.

A dish of French vanilla ice cream.
A dish of French vanilla ice cream.

French cooks have been working with vanilla since the 16th century, when European explorers first began bringing the beans back with them from the New World, and in the 19th century, the French established vanilla plantations in several of their colonies. The result was a dedicated supply of beans that could, in turn, be used in an array of recipes, including the recipe for a vanilla custard.

French vanilla custard can be used for cake and pastry filling.
French vanilla custard can be used for cake and pastry filling.

This custard is made by cooking egg yolks, cream, and sugar together with crushed vanilla pods and vanilla flavoring. The result is a very rich dish with a strong yellow color, thanks to the egg yolks, and small black flecks from the crushed vanilla pods. It has an intense flavor and aroma, and a creamy, rich texture. Some of the best vanilla ice cream is made with a French vanilla base, and this custard can also be used in other custard desserts.

Dried vanilla beans.
Dried vanilla beans.

Any variety of vanilla can be used to make French vanilla, although many cooks like to work with cultivars produced in regions associated with France, such as Tahiti. High quality vanilla extracts and pods tend to be used because people think of it as a gourmet product, and they are often willing to pay a premium for the best available. When made with fresh eggs and cream and high quality vanilla, this custard can have an incredible flavor.

In addition to being used as a base for ice cream, the custard can be used to fill cakes and pastries, and it may be adapted for the purpose of making filled chocolates. Products not intended for consumption, such as candles, lotions, and room fresheners, are not technically “French vanilla,” since they are not made from custard. These products do often have flecks of vanilla and a strong vanilla aroma, which is why companies think that they can get away with labeling them with this term.

French vanilla ice cream has a rich golden color and a strong vanilla flavor.
French vanilla ice cream has a rich golden color and a strong vanilla flavor.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

There is a coffee shop right down the street from me that makes the most incredible French vanilla mocha you have ever had. I order one at least once a week.

I have always liked mochas, but there is something about the addition of french vanilla that elevates the entire drink to a new level. It is so rich and creamy and decadent, like drinking an entire dessert menu at once.


How difficult is it to grow vanilla beans? Will they only grow in tropical climates?

There are so many flavors of ice cream these days, but for me the best will always be french vanilla. It is such a simple but complex flavor. I could eat a bowl of it every night and never crave another kind of ice cream.

I recently took a cooking class and one of the things we made was adapted from a French vanilla ice cream cake recipe. I couldn't believe how delicious it was, quite different from similar desserts I've had before.

The teacher was pleased to give us a mini seminar on buying and storing gourmet vanilla beans and pods. I had no idea that there were so many varieties, or that they shouldn't be stored in airtight containers! We also learned about vanilla mold, a consequence of poor storage.

There really is no adequate substitute for making your own custard or vanilla sugar for baking. If you don't believe me try buying a couple of pods at a quality food store and give it a try.


When I was a teenager I read a magazine article about the power of vanilla scent. I was fascinated to learn that this is one of the most evocative smells for humans, and especially impressed by the aphrodisiac aspect.

Being rather keen to snag a boyfriend I borrowed some vanilla essence from my mother's cooking supplies and applied it liberally to my wrists, neck and cleavage.

The mission was unsuccessful, largely because the liquid in this form left unsightly brown stains on my skin. Rather than appearing glamorous and irrestible I looked like someone who needed a good wash!


@Valencia - I'm a major fan too, and I know what you mean about the costs of buying coffee in the shops. I've seen places that add 20% or more to the price just for a shot of flavoring!

I have been making my own for a couple of years now. If you'd like to try, here's my French vanilla syrup recipe.

1. Bring two cups of sugar and two of water to the boil on the stove. I use white sugar but brown would do.

2. After 2 - 4 minutes the misture will get thick. You should turn off the heat when that happens.

3. Now add 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract. It should be pure, not alcohol based.

4. Let it get cool and then store in an airtight container, I use a plastic bottle.

You can add it to hot or cold drinks and it keeps in the fridge for a few weeks.

For a simple French vanilla creamer just mix one can of low fat condensed milk with one and a half cups of non or low fat milk. Add a tablespoon of pure vanilla essence and, as the French would say, voila!


My friend spends a fortune on French vanilla latte coffee. She must buy at least one a day, sometimes two! I like the way it tastes but my funds don't run to buying that many flavored drinks from stores. Is it possible to make your own syrup?

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