Hooked on Vanilla Salt: These Cranberry Lemon Bars Are Why

Hooked on Vanilla Salt: These Cranberry Lemon Bars Are Why
Have you ever seen a recipe that didn’t call for a pinch of salt? There are not very many! Salt adds texture, plays a role in culinary chemical reactions, and -- best of all -- adds incredible flavor to sweet and savory dishes alike. You can use sea salt, volcanic salt, fine grain, large flake, and even smoked salts, but nothing will liven up your taste buds quite like vanilla salt.

Vanilla… What?

Vanilla salt first cartwheeled across my pallet on a tour at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, the only commercial vanilla farm in the United States. The humble little package was almost obscured by more traditional offerings on the shelf and I almost thought the label was a mistake! Salt and vanilla? But owner Jim Reddekopp assured me that vanilla salt was in fact a real ingredient and promised that once I tried it, I would never cook the same way again.
Jim’s favorite way to enjoy vanilla salt is to sprinkle it on top of dark chocolate caramels for a delicious twist on the salted caramel food trend. Yum! I was hooked. Before I knew it, I was adding vanilla salt to everything. Vanilla salt on popcorn, with a bit of melted butter and a dash a cinnamon? Amazing! A pinch of vanilla salt over vanilla ice cream? Out of this world! Every dessert recipe that called for a dash of salt was suddenly ten times better thanks to vanilla salt.
And it wasn’t just sweet treats that suddenly tasted better. Vanilla adds a tremendous depth of flavor to savory dishes and you can substitute regular salt for vanilla salt in any spice rub, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, relish, or chutney. I love adding it to my homemade potato and corn chowder. The vanilla is the perfect complement to the richness of the cream and the sweetness of the corn.

Make Your Own Vanilla Salt

Vanilla salt is very economical, at less than $10 a package, but you can save even more by making it yourself. You will need a clean Mason jar, good quality sea salt (I prefer a very fine sea salt, but there’s no reason you can’t use a coarser flake), and one vanilla bean pod for every 1/2 cup of salt.
Using the tip of a paring knife, carefully split the vanilla pod open and scrape out all the beans. Using a small bowl and a wooden spoon or a pestle, grind the beans together with the salt. The end result will be a salt that is slightly off-white in color, with visible black specks of beans. Pour into the storage jar and don’t forget your empty pod -- add the shell into the jar for even more flavor!

There’s really no recipe that I don’t think would benefit from the enhancement of vanilla salt, but the extra flavor really shines in one of my all-time favorite recipes for gooey cranberry lemon bars. Don’t let the length of the recipe intimidate you -- it’s straight forward and forgiving, and when you bring a plate of these squares to a summer pot luck everyone will be begging you for your secret ingredient. It’s up to you whether you tell or not!

Cranberry Lemon Bars with Vanilla Salt

The recipe calls for 2 cups of whole cranberries and 2 cups of shredded, sweetened coconut. You can also use dried cranberries – just be sure to rehydrate them a little bit first. I soak mine in orange juice for about 5 minutes and then drain off the excess liquid.

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 3/4 cups granulated sugar plus 1 tablespoon
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons vanilla salt
  • 2/3 cup cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 cups cranberries
  • 2 cups shredded, sweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
For the first layer: Combine 2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 1/2teaspoons vanilla salt, and butter. Using two knives or a pastry blender, cut the butter into the mixture until it is well mixed and crumbly. Pat into a 9x13 inch baking pan and bake at 325F for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together eggs, 2 cups of sugar, vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon vanilla salt, and lemon juice. Gradually add in 1/4 cup of flour and 1 teaspoon of baking powder and, when well mixed, set aside.
With your precooked base now out of the oven, sprinkle the cranberries and coconut on top of the base. Pour your liquid egg, lemon, and sugar mixture over everything. The liquid will spread to cover everything as it cooks -- never fear! Mix together 1 teaspoon vanilla salt with 1 tablespoon of sugar and sprinkle over the top. Continue baking at 325F for 55 to 60 minutes. And it’s delicious!

Photo Credits: author, rkit, author, and author.

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