Spice Hunting: Sussing Out Vanilla Beans

Max Falkowitz

After saffron, vanilla may be the most expensive spice in your pantry, costing $5 to $10 a bean. Then again, it may also be one of your cheapest, in the form of distilled extracts that promise the idea of something vanilla-esque, if never delivering on the real thing. But if you're willing to pay for pricey vanilla beans, how do you know what beans to get, and where to get them? And once you have them, what can you do with them?

To cut to the obvious chase: Yeah, real vanilla beans are worth it. So worth it. Like, one-of-the-most-exotic-flavors-on-the-planet, reaffirms-your-faith-in-the-majesty-of-creation-worth-it. Real vanilla is as sweet as honeysuckle, piquant as black pepper, floral and seductive as the most musky cantaloupe. Most of this flavor can be attributed to the chemical vanillin, which tastes like what we think of when we think of vanilla. (It can also be found in wood pulp, which is used to make dirt-cheap imitation vanilla extract.) But vanilla has over 250 flavor compounds beyond vanillin, lending it an astounding complexity.

Varieties of Vanilla

Vanilla varieties today mostly differ by growing region. There are three main varieties:

  • Bourbon vanilla is by far the most common, hailing from Madagascar (known as the Isle of Bourbon during its French colonial days). It's strong and heady, a one-two vanilla punch. That intensity of flavor has helped make it the most popular variety worldwide. Bourbon beans are long and thin, with curvy tips
  • Vanilla from Mexico is considered by many to be the best in the world, rich and spicy without hitting you over the head. Much like Mexican cinnamon (to which comparisons can and should be made), its flavor may come as something of a shock if you've only had Bourbon vanilla beans before—a different set of flavor elements that operate on different levels. Mexican are a little shorter than their Madagascar counterparts.
  • Tahitian vanilla is the most delicate of the three, which is a nice of way of saying it doesn't have as strong a flavor. But its aroma is like the breeze of a flapping angel's wing. Tahitian vanilla is characterized by sweet, floral, fruity notes and honey-like essence. Tahitian beans are naturally fat, almost cigar-like.

Which variety you should use depends on your personal preferences and the vanilla's final destination. For baking thick batters, Bourbon's robust flavors do the best job of standing up to long oven times. But Mexican vanilla's unique flavor would stand out especially well in an ice cream or panna cotta. If using vanilla with fruit, you may want to aim for Tahitian vanilla as a fruity complement.

Sourcing Vanilla

Though vanilla beans are graded after processing, these grades don't enter much into the consumer market. So when it comes to quality, your best aides are your eyes, nose, and wallet. Good vanilla will never be cheap, be it in pod or extract form. Like with saffron, if you see a deal too good to be true, it's likely a dud or an impostor crop like tonka bean (a carcinogen, among other things).

A panna cotta with vanilla bean, cinnamon, and lime.

"You may look a little odd sniffing deeply against plastic containers, but it's worth it."

If you at all have the chance to hold, see, and smell your vanilla beans before purchasing them, do. The beans should be plump and pliable, never brittle or dry. If you hold them up to the light, they should shine, a sure sign of a moist bean. Even through plastic packaging, you should be able to catch a whiff of the pods. You may look a little odd sniffing deeply against plastic containers, but it's worth it.

You also want to get your vanilla from reputable sources. Mexican vanilla, for example, has had a major quality control problem for a while. It's hard to find quality beans, and the extract is often adulterated with tonka bean. My go-to source for vanilla is The Spice House, which carries all three varieties.

Get the Most Out of Your Pod

Unlike other spices, vanilla isn't a use-it-and-lose-it ingredient. For recipes involving a split and scraped vanilla bean to be infused into a liquid, save and dry off the spent pod. Stick it in a jar with some sugar, and add some more pods when you go through additional vanilla beans, and in a few weeks you'll have a delicately-scented jar of vanilla sugar to stir into tea, coffee, and other mixed drinks. You can also grind whole pods into sugar for a more powerful vanilla punch. For bonus points, grind some vanilla beans into fine salt for an unusual but quite frankly awesome finishing salt.

Vanilla sugar.

Some vanilla-heads swear by storing their vanilla beans in rum. Snip off the ends and stick the tips in just a wee bit of rum. They can be stored this way indefinitely, and the beans plump up with a potent foil to their flavor. What you do with the resulting vanilla rum is one of those hard decisions I can't help you with.

No matter how you use your pods, they should be stored in airtight containers away from all sources of light and heat (this goes for extracts, too).

The Deal With Vanilla Extract

There's an oft-referenced article from Cook's Illustrated about pitting artificial vanilla flavorings against the real deal. Their tasters found little to no difference in long-baked applications like cakes and cookies, but did agree on the superiority of real vanilla extract in raw or nearly-raw applications like puddings. The reasoning is that many of the flavor compounds beyond vanillin burn off during long exposure to heat, so any subtle nuances in the extract are lost to baking. And so goes a justification for keeping the imitation stuff on hand.

I would personally need more evidence to be convinced, but this is a worthy consideration if you need to save some money on your vanilla habit. What I will say is that your taste buds are your own, and your mileage may vary significantly from a tasting panel. If I want to really inject vanilla flavor into something, I'll spring for a bean. But even just for a background flavor, I'm not willing to give up real vanilla extract. I do like my extract on a budget though, and for what it's worth, the Kirkland extract is one of the best value extracts I've encountered.

It's Va-nil-long Trip

Kendiala on Flickr

If you've made it all this way, I applaud your vanilla enthusiasm. But we've barely scratched the surface of vanilla's depths and uses. So chime in, Serious Eaters. Any lingering questions you'd like answered? Any killer vanilla uses we should know about? Share 'em in the comments.