Vanilla beans – those pricey, fragrant, dried seedpods that offer no easy clue about how to use them – are native to tropical America. There are over 150 varieties of vanilla orchids (there are 27 varieties in South Florida alone), but only two species are used commercially to flavor and fragrance foods and beverages– Bourbon and Tahitian.
Bourbon vanilla beans are botanically known as Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrans and originally came from the Gulf Coast of Mexico. When grown in Mexico they’re called Mexican beans. On the other hand, beans from the same plant stock are called Bourbon vanilla beans if they grow in Madagascar, Indonesia, and many other regions. The big exception is the beans from Tahiti. Even though Tahitian vanilla is now considered its own species, the original plant stock also came from Mexico.
Vanilla beans vary in flavor and fragrance when they are grown in different parts of the world. Soil and climate differences as well as methods of curing imbue unique qualities in beans. Vanilla grown only 20 miles apart can have subtle but distinct differences in flavor and appearance.
Tips for choosing quality beans
Premium vanilla beans, regardless of where they come from, should have a rich, full aroma, be oily to the touch and sleek in appearance. Beans to avoid are those with very little scent, are smoky, brittle or dry or are mildewed.
Bourbon vanilla beans are long and slender, with a very rich taste and smell, have thick, oily skin, contain an abundance of tiny seeds and have a strong vanilla aroma. Bourbon beans from Madagascar and the Comoros are described as having a creamy, haylike, and sweet, with vanillin overtones. Bourbon beans from other regions of the world will be similar if they are picked at peak ripeness and are properly cured. Buy Bourbon vanilla beans here.
Mexican vanilla beans are very similar to Bourbon beans though they have a more mellow, smooth, quality and a spicy, woody fragrance.
Tahitian vanilla beans are usually shorter, plumper, and contain a higher oil and water content than Bourbon beans. The skin is thinner, they contain fewer seeds, and the aroma is fruity and floral. They are often described as smelling like licorice, cherry, prunes, or wine.
All three types of vanilla are equally good to use though their flavors are quite different. I suggest that you experiment to determine which flavor you most like. Or you may find, as I have, that you will choose beans that best pair with the food or beverage you are preparing. Buy Tahitian vanilla beans here.
Frequently I come across recipes that call for scraping the seeds from the vanilla bean and discarding the rest. What a waste! The entire bean is filled with flavor and, in fact, the pod has more flavor than the seeds. You can cut the bean and use a portion at a time or you can use the whole bean, depending on the depth of flavor you wish. To cut open a bean, lay it flat on a cutting surface. Holding one end of the bean to the surface, carefully slice the bean open lengthwise. When you separate the bean, thousands of tiny seeds are exposed. This step shows why it is technically a seedpod rather than a bean. By cutting the bean open before placing it in a liquid, more of the surface of the bean is exposed, and the greater the flavoring properties. You can scrape the seeds from the pod before removing the bean if you choose.
Vanilla beans can usually be used several times depending on how strenuously you’ve used them. For instance, if you’ve placed a vanilla bean in a pitcher of lemonade or a container of mulled cider or wine, the bean will still contain a lot of flavor when the beverage is gone. However, if you soak a vanilla bean in a hot cream mixture then scrape out the seeds and pith, you will probably still have some flavor left in the pod, but it won’t be strong.
Rinse and dry the bean pieces after using them. If there is only the pod left, or, if you’ve used the bean several times for flavoring beverages, let the pieces dry, and retire them to the sugar or coffee jar as they will exude a delicate flavor and fragrance for some time to come. Beans that have been used once or twice can also be ground up and used to add additional flavor to ice creams, cookies and many other foods.
Don’t throw out dry or withered beans. They will probably rehydrate in a warm liquid and will still contain flavor. I don’t recommend attempting to cut open very dry beans until they are rehydrated, as it’s easy to have the knife slip. If you prefer, grind them in a coffee grinder and use them in a recipe that calls for ground beans.
Vanilla beans will keep indefinitely in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. Don’t refrigerate beans as this can cause them to harden and crystallize. In the humid tropics where beans are grown, they are wrapped in oiled or waxed paper and stored in tin boxes. As I live in a cooler, dryer climate, I keep my beans wrapped in plastic in an airtight plastic tub or glass jar. If you live in a hot humid climate, this isn’t a good idea as beans can mildew easily, especially if additional moisture collects in the plastic. The beans may also sweat if they’re wrapped in plastic and temperatures rise about 80 degrees. Better to keep them in waxed paper in a glass jar if you have a humid climate.
Bourbon beans may develop a frosting of natural vanillin crystals if you keep them for a while. This usually occurs over time and not when the beans are first cured and dried. Called givre in French (which means light frost), these crystals indicate that the beans are high in natural vanillin and are of very good quality. These crystals are quite edible and very flavorful.
If you are uncertain whether the beans are covered with crystals or mildewed, take them into the sunlight. The crystals are similar to mineral crystals and will reflect the sun’s rays, creating the colors of the rainbow. Mildew, on the other hand, will be dull and flat in the light, and may also smell bad. If the bean is mildewed, throw it away as the mildew will spread to uninfected beans.