The most authentic, natural form of gourmet vanilla available is the vanilla bean. These dried, cured pods of the vanilla orchid can be difficult to find and costly to purchase, but their fresh, intense flavor and aroma makes them irreplaceable to gourmets and connoisseurs.
Though there are many species of vanilla orchids throughout the world, only three major cultivars are used to produce vanilla products and all three of those cultivars were derived from the vanilla planifolia orchid. Native to the Gulf coast of Mexico, vanilla planifolia was cultivated by the ancient Pre-Colombian people of Mesoamerica. It is believed that vanilla was first introduced to Europe by Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez, who sent vanilla from Mexico back to Spain in the early 1500s.
In the late 19th century vanilla production began in Madagascar and Indonesia, which took over as the leading vanilla producers after the Mexican revolution devastated the vanilla growing operations on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Vanilla grown there is generally referred to as Bourbon or Madagascar-Bourbon vanilla. Production also started up in regions of the south Pacific, notably Tahiti, and is now botanically classified as vanilla Tahitiensis, or Tahitian Vanilla. A small amount of vanilla is commercially produced in the West Indies and South and Central America, from a subspecies botanically known as vanilla pompona.
Location, location, location
Where vanilla beans come from is the single most important factor in determining their flavor, aroma, and other characteristics. Mexican, Madagascar-Bourbon, and Tahitian vanillas all offer their own variations on the vanilla theme, but even plants of the same species grown as little as a few miles apart may differ significantly from each other.
Bourbon-Madagascar beans are renowned for their intense, rich flavor and powerful aroma. The beans are long and slender with a thick, resilient, oily skin, and the pods contain a large number of potent vanilla seeds.
Mexican vanilla beans look very similar to Bourbon beans, and Mexican bean pods contain an abundance of vanilla seeds. The flavor of Mexican vanilla is smoother, creamier, and more mellow, and their aroma is spicy and sweet.
Tahitian beans are short and plump, with thin skins. They typically have a very high oil content, but fewer seeds that Bourbon or Mexican beans. The flavor and aroma of Tahitian beans sets them apart, with strong fruity and floral notes.
What to look for in vanilla beans
Top quality beans are smooth and oily to the touch. Extreme dryness or cracking can be a bad sign. Buy vanilla beans from a reputable merchant. Remember, high quality vanilla beans aren’t cheap, so if you find a merchant offering a large amount of beans at a very low cost there’s almost certainly something amiss. With vanilla beans (as with just about everything else), if the deal seems to good to be true…. it probably is.