Grocery stores often carry just a single type of vanilla, offering no information about the country of origin or the grade. You’d be forgiven for thinking that vanilla is simply vanilla. But, that’s not true.
Instead, there are multiple types of vanilla beans, including Madagascar vanilla, Indian vanilla and Tahitian vanilla. Each individual type has its own flavor profile. The types can even have very different impacts on recipes.
In this post, we examine those different types, along with how you can use them effectively.
An Introduction to Vanilla
Vanilla beans are produced from orchids, particularly the species Vanilla planifolia. Other species from the Vanilla genus are used as well. The plants grow like a vine, climbing their way up trees and other supports.
The beans, or pods, are simply dried fruits and contain seeds. These seeds create the recognizable black specks in dishes that use vanilla.
The biggest challenge is the price tag.
Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice (next to saffron), especially if you’re buying vanilla itself, rather than vanilla extract or powder. But, the flavor benefits are well-worth the price tag.
You can also shop online for greater options.
- For example, Amazon offers a decent selection of vanilla beans, making it easy to find the type and price that is right for you.
- The site Beanilla is also powerful. They sell premium vanilla beans and extracts of many different types. Their products are a great way to be sure that you’re getting something worth the price.
What Types of Vanilla Bean Are There?
Like coffee, vanilla beans come in many different types. Each has its own distinctive flavor profile. This profile can directly impact your dish.
These are the main types that you can find and what you can expect from them:
- Madagascar vanilla (also called bourbon vanilla). A creamy and rich vanilla bean. This tends to be the most popular choice and is one of the easiest to find. If the store doesn’t specify what type of vanilla you’re getting, it’s probably from Madagascar.
- Indian vanilla. A full and chocolaty vanilla flavor. This is also a common favorite.
- Tonga vanilla. Has an earthy flavor, with some similarities to figs or raisins.
- Mexican vanilla. Has a bold and dark flavor, along with smoky overtones. The intensity makes it great in recipes that feature vanilla flavors prominently. Mexican vanilla is often considered the best vanilla beans, even though options like Madagascar vanilla are currently more popular.
- Tahitian vanilla. A more floral vanilla, with hints of cherry and chocolate flavorings. Some people mention that it tastes a little like licorice. Because the flavor is more unusual and nuanced, Tahitian vanilla can work well in recipes that heavily rely on vanilla flavor.
- Indonesian vanilla. Generally a well-balanced and mild option.
- Ugandan vanilla. This is a less common type of vanilla bean but it is still worth considering. This vanilla has a rich flavor that is reminiscent of milk chocolate. The beans are particularly well-suited to making desserts, especially if the recipe uses chocolate as an ingredient.
There is no single best type of vanilla bean.
The ideal choice is going to vary depending on your personal preferences and what you’re using the vanilla for. Many people do prefer the first two – Madagascar and Indian vanilla. But, that mightn’t the be case for you. The best way to know is to choose one to try and figure out your preferences as you go along.
Species of Vanilla Bean
Vanilla beans can be produced from three different species:
- Vanilla planifolia. This is the most common vanilla species and is grown around the world. The beans tend to be rounder and plumper than other species. Of course, there are variations based on the location that the beans are grown in.
- Vanilla tahitiensis. This species tends to be more floral. They are typically flatter and wider than other types. The beans also contain less vanillin, which is the compound the gives vanilla beans their flavor.
- Vanilla pompona. The vanillin content of this species is lower than for Vanilla planifolia, making the vanilla less powerful. The species also has a strong coumarin scent and isn’t frequently used for vanilla pods.
Vanilla Bean Grades
Vanilla beans are also graded. The grades are determined by various factors, including moisture content, condition and bean length. As a general rule, the dried and cracked beans you often see in grocery stores are Grade B or sometimes Grade C.
In contrast, flexible and soft beans will often be Grade A. They’re sometimes called premium or gourmet beans as well. The site Beanilla is a great example of what you can expect - as the business focuses on selling Grade A vanilla beans.
If you’re buying gourmet vanilla beans, look for ones that are pliable and have a rich scent. Finding these can take some work but the process is worth the effort.
Using Vanilla Beans and Vanilla Products
You can buy vanilla in many different forms, including vanilla extract and the whole bean. These have their own advantages and uses.
- Vanilla beans. These are the whole beans from the Vanilla tree and can be fresh or dried. Many recipes call for vanilla beans directly. Unfortunately, they can also be expensive.
- Vanilla extract. This is simply created from vanilla beans and alcohol.
- Vanilla powder. This is made from ground up dried vanilla beans. It is easy to use and you can make the powder yourself. But, if you buy it, there is no way to know the quality of the beans that went into the powder and you may end up with a pretty low-quality product.
- Vanilla paste. This is a fairly new product on the market and is less regulated. It is simply a paste. The goal is to provide the outcomes of cooking with actual vanilla (the vanilla specks) but in a manner that is more convenient.
As Vanilla Review points out, you can often substitute one type of vanilla for another. They offer the following table as a rough comparison of amounts:
Type of Vanilla
1/4 to 1/3 teaspoon
But, you will still need to be careful. The quality can vary dramatically between products. Some may be weaker than you expect, others may be much stronger.
Making Your Own Vanilla Extract
One of the best ways to use vanilla is to make vanilla extract yourself. This allows you to control which type of vanilla you use. You can also make sure the extract is high-quality.
Vanilla extract is also exceptionally easy to make. It just consists of alcohol and the vanilla beans. The alcohol is essential. The vanilla extract that you buy from the store will use it too.
For simple vanilla extract, the standard ratio is 5 vanilla beans for every 8 ounces of alcohol (1). The video below shows the process as well.
Because it is so simple to make, there’s little point buying vanilla extract from stores. You can also make vanilla extract for gifts.
Vanilla extract also gets more flavorful as it ages. It does best when stored in a cool dark environment, preferably in a glass bottle.
Cooking with Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans are easy to cook with, once you get used to them.
- Cut off the end of the bean with a sharp knife.
- Slice the vanilla bean in a lengthwise fashion. You may need to apply some force here, as vanilla beans have tough skin.
- You can then remove the paste from the bean, using a knife or a spoon. This paste is normally what you will use in cooking.
Many different recipes use vanilla. Some will rely on the bean itself and may end up having an intense vanilla flavor. Alternatively, you may use vanilla extract. Even just a few drops of the extract can completely change a dish.
Some powerful recipes to try are the following:
How Do You Store Vanilla Beans?
The storage of vanilla beans partly depends on what you end up with.
- Dried vanilla (typically low grade). Many vanilla beans will be dried, especially if you buy them from a grocery store. These are easy to store and can simply be kept in a cool and dry place.
- Fresh vanilla (typically a higher grade). These vanilla beans tend to be moister and more pliable. There may even be some brown liquid present, which is squeezed out of the beans during packaging. Fresh vanilla needs to be stored so that it remains moist. This often involves wrapping it in wax paper and storing it in an airtight container.
Either way, the vanilla should be stored outside of the refrigerator.
The site Vanilla Queen offers more details about storing vanilla, along with what you can do if you get any mold on the beans.
With so many different types and considerations, vanilla beans can seem complicated. But, they don’t need to be.
The best approach is just to focus on high-quality beans, particularly ones that specify where they are sourced from.
Real vanilla can completely transform a dish. It really is worth spending the time to find high-quality and to choose a type that is going to complement your recipes.
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