Buying Vanilla Beans | Bakepedia Tips

Buying Vanilla Beans

vanilla beans in jar

Every one of you reading this tip probably has a bottle of vanilla extract in your pantry. Vanilla beans are a whole other matter. They are pricey and not something we just keep around on hand; however, when we want to make a standout vanilla crème brûlée or vanilla-scented pound cake, then its time to reach for a bean.

Image: Dédé Wilson

Just like other beans we are fond of, namely coffee and cacao beans, vanilla is an agricultural product – an orchid, actually – with a flavor that varies due to its country of origin; specific microclimates, soil, harvesting and manufacturing methods; and, of course, its species. (Fun fact: The vanilla plant is the only edible fruit-bearing orchid.) Here, I will discuss two different types: Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis.

Vanilla planifolia Vanilla beans

Image: Peter Muka

Most quality vanilla extract is made from Vanilla planifolia, above, grown in Mexico as well as the Bourbon Islands of Madagascar: Réunion, Mauritius, Comoro and Seychelles, which are southeast of Africa. When you see the term “Bourbon vanilla” or “Madagascar Bourbon,” the reference is to the locale and has nothing to do with bourbon liquor.

Mexican vanilla beans have been described as a blend of sweet and spicy flavors with a creamy quality. Madagascar Bourbon beans are characterized by their sweet aroma and flavor – this is your “all-purpose” vanilla and what most of us think of when we think of vanilla as a flavor. Mexican and Bourbon vanilla are very versatile and can be used in both savory as well as sweet applications, in everything from cookies to cakes to ice cream to delicate soufflés and spicy salsas.

Tahitian-vanilla-beans

Image: Dédé Wilson

Vanilla tahitensis, above, as you might guess from the name, hails from Tahiti and is very different and more rare. Tahitian vanilla is characterized by a very strong floral note and some say a fruity one as well. The beans tend to be pricier and harder to source, but if you love vanilla, then you owe it to yourself to get some Tahitian beans and experiment.

Vanilla bean comparison: Vanilla tahitensis vs. Vanilla planifolia
Vanilla tahitensis, top; Vanilla planifolia, bottom.

Image: Peter Muka

Now, we know that many people think of vanilla as a background flavor. After all, we add vanilla extract to just about everything we bake, so it is easy to see how one could relegate vanilla to a supportive role. Perhaps this is because you have yet to play with beans. While extract can pack a punch, it is almost like saying you know coffee when all you have had is coffee from the gas station. The elegance, nuance and depth that a vanilla bean can bring to your baked goods is extraordinary and well worth the expense.

Vanilla bean seeds

Image: Peter Muka

When buying beans, there are a few certain things to know to get the most for your buck:

  • Buy from a reputable source. We use Nielsen-Massey beans in our Test Kitchen.
  • Look for plump, supple and fragrant beans that are very dark brown, almost black.
  • Good beans will be shiny from the oils that provide their flavor. If they are brittle or dull, do not purchase.
  • Mexican and Bourbon beans will be smaller than Tahitian.
  • Look for beans that have been stored at cool room temperature in airtight packaging to preserve freshness.
  • Vanilla beans should never be refrigerated (as this can encourage mold), nor should they be frozen.
  • Crystals may form on high-quality beans, which are indicative of the high natural vanillin content. (Vanillin is the natural aromatic compound in vanilla that contributes significantly to its flavor.) Use as you would any bean.
  • To determine need, 1 whole bean = 1 tablespoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste.
  • To use: Slit the bean lengthwise with a sharp paring knife, then use the dull side to scrape out the vanilla seeds (see above photo).
  • The seeds are usually what are called for in a recipe, but do not discard the bean pod. Make Vanilla Sugar.

 

Vanilla-seeds-extreme-closeup

Image: Peter Muka

For more information on vanilla’s agricultural history, visit Nielsen-Massey.

The beans in our images were provided by Nielsen-Massey.

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