Vanilla, renowned for its highly complex aroma and unique flavor, is the second -most expensive spice in the world, after saffron, due to its labor-intensive cultivation. Native to Mexico, it is popular the world over— particularly in desserts—but has more recently found its way into savory dishes.
Vanilla pods are produced by a vine-link orchid that has only one natural pollinator, the Melipona bee. Since this stingless variety is only found in Central and South America, vanilla was grown exclusively in Mexico until the early 1800s. It was a young slave boy by the name of Edmond Albius who discovered a technique for pollinating the beans by hand, which is how most vanilla is cultivated to this day.
When first picked, the green fruit hasn’t any taste and must undergo a lengthy process in order to develop its deep flavor. After the harvest, the vanilla pods are steamed or boiled in order to kill the cells. Then they are heated in the sun and fermented, a process that is repeated over several weeks in order to ensure maximum quality.
There are essentially three primary varieties of vanilla and all are decedents or hybrids of the original, Vanilla planifolia. The differences in vanilla beans stem from where and how they are produced. We asked the folks at Beanilla, an online vanilla merchant, to help us sort them out:
Bourbon Vanilla Beans
Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans are considered to be superior, with flavor and aromatic qualities that make these beans the most popular (80% of worldwide vanilla consumption) and sought after vanilla variety. The flavor is rich, dark and creamy with an overwhelming sweet, buttery aroma. These are well suited for many baking recipes, drinks and desserts.
The name Bourbon stems from the isle Réunion, which used to be called Ile Bourbon, where Vanilla was first produced. Nowadays, Madagascar and Indonesia are the biggest producer of bourbon vanilla.
Mexican Vanilla Beans
Rich, smooth with subtle tones of smoke, characterize the flavor of these premium Mexican vanilla beans. They are considered perfect for many baked goods. Try them in cream sauces, ice cream, and other desserts or recipes.
Tahitian Vanilla Beans (vanilla tahitensis)
There are two types of Tahitian vanilla beans; those from Tahiti and those from Papua New Guinea. Real vanilla from Tahiti emit a floral aroma with tones of ripe fruit. The flavor has rich tones of cherry-chocolate, licorice and caramel. Hand’s down our favorite!
Tonga Vanilla Beans
Palm-fringed beaches, rainforests, lagoons and warm blue water make up the beautiful paradise where these rare and highly sought after vanilla beans are grown. Tonga vanilla beans are extremely bold with a pronounced, unique aroma and flavor profile.
Ugandan Vanilla Beans
Vanilla produced in Uganda is incredible. The aroma is earthy with tones of milk-chocolate. The flavor is very bold as these vanilla beans produce a very high amount of vanillin, making them perfect for rich desserts and chocolates.
Indian Vanilla Beans
Indian vanilla beans are very similar to Madagascar vanilla. These gourmet-grade vanilla beans are huge and contain an abundance of seeds. Many will contest that the sweet woodsy flavor profile of these beans is superior to that of the Bourbon-Madagascar variety.
Indonesian Vanilla Beans
Indonesian Vanilla Beans are sweet with a unique smoky/woody flavor. The flavor is perfect for richer desserts and recipes that call for chocolate, caramel, or other deep flavors. These beans are similar to the Tahitian and Tonga vanilla beans.
Buying & Storing
The quality of vanilla beans is dependent on three factors— length, appearance, and moisture content. High-quality beans are blemish-free, dark, long, and contain a high moisture content; they tend to be the most visually attractive.
High-quality vanilla beans are rarely found in standard supermarkets. The best place to buy vanilla beans is at a dedicated spice vendor or sometimes the Internet.
Wherever you make your purchase, avoid buying in large quantities. As with all spices, vanilla loses its aroma over time and dries out quickly. It’s best to use it when it’s fresh.
Fresh vanilla is very flexible, is moist and has, optimally, a white frost on top.
Vanilla extract is also a possibility. The extract contains alcohol and has a slightly different flavor than fresh vanilla. It is, however, often used in combination with fresh vanilla to deliver an even more complex aroma. When you are looking for extract, make sure to buy brands containing “natural vanilla extract” with about 35% alcohol.
Store vanilla beans in an airtight container in a dark and cool environment, such as the basement. If you can, vacuum seal the container or bag, further increasing shelf-life. That way the vanilla can be kept for up to 2 years.
Taste & Flavor
The taste and flavor of vanilla is unique. It can have sweet, caramel or floral notes to it. Vanillin is part of vanilla’s chemical structure and accounts for most of the flavor. Thus, vanillin is nowadays often produced chemically and substituted for real vanilla.
Vanillin and vanilla-like flavors occur naturally in African white ginger and can be developed over time like oak-aged wine. The grated seeds of the Tonka bean have a similar aroma as vanilla and are often substituted because of that.
Vanilla is traditionally used in patisserie, starting with the very basic pastry cream as well as in cakes, chocolate, coffee, desserts, custards, fruits, cinnamon. However it also pairs well in savory dishes in order to balance out the flavors. It mixes nicely with vegetables such as pumpkin or carrots, which by themselves are naturally rich in sugar.
Cooking & Preparing
To cook with vanilla beans, split a fresh pod down the middle lengthwise with a sharp paring knife, being careful not to cut all the way through. Spread the pod open and scrape the back of your knife along the inside walls.
Vanilla is a precious spice so it is important to make the most of it (not just because of price). One way to use leftover vanilla beans is to make vanilla sugar. Simply get a jar, add the dry vanilla beans to the sugar, then seal. Over time, the aroma and natural oils of vanilla will be infused into the sugar. (You can also make vanilla sugar by grinding the bean up with the sugar, which yields a darker result).
Whenever you have leftover, empty, or even used vanilla pods, be sure to save them. Rinse the pods under cold water and pat dry. Then let them dry out in the open and add them to the vanilla sugar.