I am horrible at making decisions. When I got my acceptance letters from college, I spent the month flip-flopping between schools (Hopkins, WashU, and Tufts) before sending in my enrollment to Tufts the day of the deadline. I’m always the last one to order at dinner and the first one to second-guess myself. So when the local culinary store offered me two kinds of vanilla beans, you can imagine my predicament.
Let me jump back a little bit. Earlier this summer, I did some work over at Lamberts Cove Inn restaurant. I worked under the Sous chef, Max, who taught me how to make the various desserts and appetizers. It was there while making the Chocolate Espresso Pot de Crème that I had my first experience with vanilla beans. Max taught me how removed the seeds from the bean (cut lengthwise and scrape the knife down to collect) and store the hulled beans (in sugar to get vanilla sugar). I didn’t know how or where to get the beans, but I knew that I needed to stock up!
Last Tuesday, my mom was in line for movie tickets (Julie and Julia) and I was browsing the local gourmet store, Le Roux. I examined all the gadgets. These kinds of stores can be dangerous. They sell tools that you never knew existed, but the moment you see them you feel as though you could not possibly cook without them. As I sauntered through the aisles, I was hit by that incredible and distinct aroma. Could it be? Did my nose deceive me? There in front of me stood packages of vacuum sealed vanilla beans. A quarter of a pound for $14.99! And this is Massachusetts, which means no sales tax on food!
But then I noticed the two big labels—Planifolia and Tahitian—demarcating the different varieties. This is when the trouble started. An employee appeared at my side (I suspect apparition) and asked if she could help. I’m sure it was an odd sight—a bearded fellow examining the seemingly identical packages, sniffing them intently. I asked her if she could explain the difference between the two, as the labels failed to do so. She escorted me to the front where she did some “quick research” (google search), which told her that the Tahitian beans were the sweeter variety. When I paused, waiting for more info, I was met with a vacant stare and silence. How tremendously illuminating! Since I was short on time, I simply purchased the Tahitian beans and secured the receipt tightly in my pocket. Off to the movies!
Throughout the film, my mind kept doing loop-de-loos over these damn beans. As soon as I got home, I did some researching of my own. The lack of information on the company’s own website was rather frustrating, but a couple hours later, I had gathered some basic info on the beans, thanks to a couple of sites…
Basic Vanilla Bean Facts
Where do vanilla beans come from?
-The beans come from orchids, which originated in Mexico but have since made it to other regions (more on that later). The orchids are supposedly quite valuable, and according to Penzey Spices, the farmers who cultivate vanilla keep very loud and intimidating dogs so as to protect the beans from thieves.
How long should a vanilla bean be?
I’ve always thought that size wasn’t a big issue, it’s how you use it… But the proper length for a vanilla bean is seven or so inches. Any smaller and the flavor won’t be as good. The longer the bean, the more robust the flavor.
What are the different kinds of vanilla beans?
There are two species of vanilla beans. The first is Vanilla Planifolia, which originated in Mexico. Since then, the orchid has been cultivated in other parts of the world, most famously in Madagascar, where it might be referred to as “Bourbon” vanilla. This name comes from the island where it was grown (you guessed it—Bourbon Island, athough it is now known as Reunion Island). Madagascar gets a lot of the attention for vanilla because as of 2006, 59% of all vanilla is cultivated there.
Despite being the land of their origin, Mexico produces only 3% of all vanilla worldwide. The flavor of these Planifolia beans is relatively similar to those of Madagascar. The difference is that they have a slightly darker, woodier fragrance.
Then there are Tahitian beans, which come from an entirely different plant—Vanilla Tahitiensis. This plant is a mutation of the planifolia. The beans contain very little vanillin content (the compound that contributes most the the flavor we associate with vanilla), instead giving off a floral, fruity fragrance. So while it may not give off the traditional “vanilla scent,” it is reportedly popular with pastry chefs due to its alternative aromas. Physically speaking, it is slightly shorter, plumper, and moister than the planifolia bean. The bean contains fewer seeds than the Planifolia, but the bean itself gives off a stronger scent. One site claimed that these beans are far more uncommon and thus more expensive. But I’m investing in vanilla beans, not Pokémon cards—I don’t care about rarity. Besides, they were the same price at the store.
So let’s sum that up real quick:
Vanilla Planifolia: The O.G. bean, two different subsets
-Madagascan/Bourbon Vanilla: Bold, traditional flavor
-Mexican Vanilla: A little woodier, but pretty similar
Vanilla Tahitiensis: The X-Men Bean, floral/fruity scent
All of the websites I visited recommended the reader try out each kind and find the one they like best. Granted, these websites also were vanilla vendors, so of course they wanted you to try out each one! If you buy all the different kinds, they make more money! Penzey Spice recommended Madagascar beans for all around use, while they claimed that the Mexican beans’ darker flavor “is perfect for vanilla liqueur and coffee drinks.” They had nothing about Tahitian beans. Grr…
The company I purchased them from–Saffron, Vanilla Imports—provided no information on their website about Tahitian beans. It isn’t even specified where the Planifolia beans are from. Are they Mexican or Madagascan? The “Vanilla’s History” page on the site only speaks about Mexico. Should I assume then that they’re Mexican?
Ughhhh… I’m having second thoughts just writing all this down. Seriously, I am gonna go crazy over this. I have yet to open the package, so if any you readers have an opinion one way or the other, feel free to comment.
When I went back to the store, I explained to the lady at the register that I wanted to exchange my Tahitian beans for the Planifolia ones. She giggled and cocked her head slightly, then innocently asked, “Well there can’t be much of a difference, can there?”