Broken Dry Bean Dry broken vanilla bean.

I have tried Arizona to only get dried out skinny beans.:0(

We got this message through the contact form today. Another unhappy Arizona Vanilla Company customer.

We thought their vanilla was pretty bad too, and they got really nasty with us. We think they pretended to be their neighbors and left outlandish comments. Really strange bunch, we recommend you avoid them.

Dun Yong Market, an Asian grocery store in Amsterdam, invited us to a tasting panel of different soy sauces. You can also enter to be randomly selected for one of their monthly tasting panels, and read the full results and comments from previous panels at Tokowijzer (Dutch).

Here are our notes from this amazing tasting. We hope Dun Yong considers making these panels available to the public. Take the opportunity to try it yourself if you ever have the chance.

We had a great time meeting the coordinators, permanent panelists, and other invited guests. A big thanks to Dun Yong Market and FongYee for making this possible!

We began with an introduction to tofu, which was used as a tasting platform for the soy sauces. We tried tofus of various firmness and textures, some flavored with ingredients like egg, teriyaki, or five spice.

We then moved on to the main event: a blind taste test of 14 soy sauces. The sauces were served on rice and fried tofu, and each panelist was given a notes sheet to use after each tasting. We were surprised by the range of different flavors and levels of saltiness, and it was quite an experience to try them all in close succession.

1. Marukin Low Salt Soy Sauce (1L / €4.50)

Our ratings: 7.5 and 8

The first soy sauce of the evening. A low-sodium sauce, which completely surprised us because it is still sharp and full of flavor. It has a thin consistency and a fermented aroma.

2. Kikkoman Less Salt Soy Sauce (150ml / €2.95)

Our ratings: 9 and 9

This was the crowd favorite of the evening, garnering the highest scores across the panel. We had never considered using low-salt Kikkoman before. Why mess with a good thing? We were surprised how much we enjoyed this. It has a dark, reduced flavor. Slightly sweet, with a full-bodied consistency. It is pleasantly salty, but not overpowering.

3. Kikkoman Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce “Shoyu” (1L / €6.25)

Our ratings: 6 and 5

Next up is our standard kitchen soy sauce, which we buy in the bulk (1L) plastic bottles. If this wasn’t a blind test it might get a higher score, but in this context it’s pretty disappointing. This is the first full-salt version included in the tasting, and the difference is striking and a bit overpowering. It is thin and has a strong flavor, but lacks the caramel/brown overtones that can give soy sauce an extra dimension. It is better on fried tofu than on rice.

4. Kikkoman Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce “Shoyu” (150ml / €2.50)

Our ratings: 8 and 8

This is actually the same soy sauce as #3, but it’s packaged in a small, glass bottle. We are surprised by how much this changes the flavor and quality. The rest of the panel agreed, and it garnered the second-highest average score of the tasting. Keeping soy sauce in a larger container changes the way the soy sauce ages, just as flavors in wine change depending on whether it is kept in a bottle or a cask. The contrasts are very pronounced. The flavor in this soy sauce is stronger, with lightly sweet notes of sherry. The consistency is very thin and the sauce has a lighter color.

5. Pearl River Bridge Superior Light Soy Sauce (500ml / €1.29)

Our ratings: 3.5 and 6.5

Pearl River is a cheap Chinese brand of soy sauce that we use in our own kitchen for cooking, but never for dipping or seasoning. It’s truly an unimpressive soy sauce, but it works fine for adding some salt and color to soups and marinades. Our blind tasting is consistent with our earlier impressions. It is full-bodied and lightly acidic, but with unpleasant musty-cheesy-mushroomy side flavors. Dark and thin, medium saltiness. It highlights the fried flavor in the tofu, and not in a good way.

6. Healthy Boy Brand Thin Soy Sauce (300ml / €1.15)

Our ratings: 5 and 5.5

Extremely thin and light colored Thai soy sauce. Very salty and sweet. Not a favorite.

Readers should note that at this point we are feeling the effects from eating a lot of soy sauce. If you try this at home, remember to stay hydrated.

7. Mee Chun “Best” Soy Sauce (500ml / €1.75)

Our ratings: 7 and 7.5

Very dark and thick. Sweet without being sugary, has molasses overtones. Not especially salty.

8. Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce (740ml / €2.15)

Our ratings: 4 and 5

We guessed that this was likely Pearl River Bridge because it has many of the off flavors we associate with that brand. It is medium in color and thickness, and has a strong smell. The taste is powerful and very salty, with a tiny hint of vanilla.

9. Kikkoman Light Soy Sauce “Usukuchi Shoyu” (1L / €6.25)

Our ratings: 8 and 8

Kikkoman Light is clearer than the normal stuff, allowing ingredients to maintain their natural colors when cooked. Very salty, thin. Strong flavor with caramel overtones.

10. Takesan Kishibori Shoyu Koikuchi First Pressed Soy Sauce (1L / €16.00)

Our ratings: 5 and 7

Acidic tang, with very nice smell and flavor. Leaves a slight aftertaste. Extremely salty though, so salty that it loses points. This is the most expensive soy sauce in the bunch. We’re glad we didn’t fall in love and become soy snobs.

At this point we are really wearing down, and distinctions between each brand start to blur and fade. Take our notes with a grain of salt, or a drop of soy sauce.

11. Kikkoman Tamari Soy Sauce (Gluten Free) (250ml / €3.65)

Our ratings: 6 and 6

This gluten-free Kikkoman sauce isn’t a replacement for the original. Thin and salty, with a sour, sharp, almost citric flavor.

12. Yamasa Soy Sauce (150ml / €2.25)

Our ratings: 7 and 6

Full flavor, very salty. Strongly fermented and alkaline. Could be an adequate cooking soy, but we’d avoid it for dipping.

13. Healthy Boy Brand Soy Sauce with Mushroom (700ml / €2.40)

Our ratings: 6 and 6

Very sweet, the mushroom flavor comes through as a combination of fishy and fruity smells. Very light, very thin, low saltiness.

14. Mizkan Ajipon Ponzu (Soy Sauce with Yuzu) (355ml / €3.65)

Our ratings: 8 and 4

Specialty soy sauces are a matter of taste, and we were split on this one. It isn’t a soy in the traditional sense, it’s very light and very thin. Sweet, fruity, sherry flavors. Low saltiness. Recommended to us as an ingredient in salad dressing.

Fresh spices are important. I usually turn to places like Penzy’s and the Spice House for decent spices that haven’t been on the grocery store shelf for a year. The quality of products from these commercial vendors is reliable, and certainly acceptable for everyday use. If you’re looking for a special place with truly exceptional world-class spices, however, I recommend SA.VA. in Italy.

All of SA.VA.’s spices are flown to Italy from Madagascar. Most companies ship spices in (hot) boats. SA.VA. transports spices in climate controlled airplanes, so they are amazingly potent and fresh. It’s always a treat to sample some of SA.VA’s spices. Today I’ll look at six: pink peppercorns, coriander, dill, fenegreek, nutmeg, ground ginger, and voatsiperifery peppercorns. Here are my previous SA.VA. notes.

First up, these brilliantly colored pink peppercorns. Light and delicate kernels that have a crispy skin, not solid like black peppercorns.  Intensely sweet, with a bright citrus flavor.

This coriander has a distinct, lemony aroma. The flavor has citrus and cedar notes. Beautiful whole seeds.

Dill seeds are used in breads, for pickling, and as a salad dressing. There is a sharp dill aroma, and the flavor has notes of caraway. It delivers a slight menthol tingle.  The seeds a have a light, crispy texture.

Caramely, buttery aroma from this fenugreek really wallops you in the face. The deep golden seeds are slightly sweet, with butter and toffee flavors. It has been delicious in my curries and middle-eastern soups. Highly recommended.

This ginger has a delicate, sweet, and spicy aroma. It has a mild flavors, with an astringent note and very light heat. Great in pumpkin pies and seasoning for pork sausage.

Breakfast Sausage Seasoning (1.5 tablespoon per pound/500g): 1/4 tsp salt (add another ½ – 1 tsp to meat); ¼ T white pepper; ½ T sage; ½ t SA.VA. ginger; ¼ T SA.VA. nutmeg; ½ T thyme; ½ t marjoram, 5-10 small hot chilis (I used SA.VA.’s fantastic pili pili chiles).

Average sized nutmeg with a pungent aroma. Extremely oily inside, it forms a fine paste when grated. One seed yields around 1/3 – 1/2 tsp of grated nutmeg. I also used this in pumpkin pie and sausage seasoning (see recipee above). Highly recommended.

Voatsiperifery is a type of wild (not cultivated) peppercorn that grows exclusively in Madagascar. They only grow at the very top shoots of the pepper vines. The dried pepper retains its stem, which gives it a unique appearance. It tastes like black peppercorns. Low heat. Earthy, woody, slightly tangy.

All of these spices are available from SA.VA.’s online shop. I highly recommend the pili pili chiles and cumin, as well.

Pepper-Passion
Website: http://www.pepper-passion.com
Black peppercorns reviewed: Malabar, Tellicherry, Sarawak, Lampong, Madagascar, Talamanaca, Vietnam, Kampot, Pohnpei
Cost: Pepper-Passion provided samples for this review.

Pepper-Passion has the most extensive selection of peppercorns of any vendor that I’ve encountered so far.  They have high-quality standard selections, such as Malabar and Tellicherry, along with relatively unknown varieties like Pohnpei and Kampot. Click on the pictures to enlarge.

India Malabar – Medium size, light tan, wide range of colors. Soft texture. Cinnamon and nutmeg notes. Heat is warm and cozy.
India Tellicherry – Medium-to-large size. Uniformly dark brown. Cedar middle notes, becomes slightly bitter toward the end. Light heat.
Malaysian Sarawak – Large size. Array of colors, dark-brown to tan. Light, crispy texture. Bright flavor, slightly citrus. Light heat.
Indonesian Lampong – Small. Black to dark-brown. Slightly soft texture. Bold, peppery flavor. Medium heat.
Madagascar – Small size. Color varies from black to tan. Firm, crunchy texture. Middle notes of pine, followed by other spice notes such as cumin and coriander. Heat develops slowly, provides a lingering warmth.
Ecuador Talamanca - Medium to large in size. Gray to black color. Notes of juniper, slightly tangy taste. Intense heat develops after about 10 seconds. The end flavor is slightly bitter. These don’t have the strong vegetal taste that I’ve noticed in some other Ecuadorian peppercorns.
Vietnam – This is the first time I’ve found gourmet Vietnamese peppercorns. Medium size. Uniform brown. Texture is dense and hard. Average flavor, but the sensation of heat is more in the nose than in the mouth, which makes it a bit unique.
Kampot – Large size. Black and shiny. Dense. Fruity flavor with a slightly bitter finish. Low heat.
Pohnpei – Large and well-formed kernels. Color is deep black-purple. The flavor is floral, almost sweet, with notes of cedar. There is a fair amount heat, which seems to catch in the back of the throat.

Peppercorns were sampled in their raw form. They were also used to season several common foods, ranging from bland (e.g., eggs) to pungent (e.g., andouille sausage, gumbo). Side-by-side comparisons were conducted whenever possible, but with this many peppercorns I had to rely heavily on notes from previous tastings. It was really an incredible opportunity, and a challenge, to compare this many different  peppercorns. A big thanks to Pepper-Passion for making this possible.

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Website: http://www.Beanilla.com
Vanilla reviewed: Tahitian vanilla sugar, Tahitian vanilla sea salt
Cost: Beanilla provided this sample for review.

Brent at Beanilla sent these samples a really long time ago, but because these kinds of products don’t fit within my normal vanilla evaluation procedure I took some extra time to consider them.

Tahitian Vanilla Sugar ($7.99/6 oz)

This product uses tahitensis vanilla from Tahiti and Papua New Guinea. I usually make vanilla sugar by exposing sugar to fresh or post-extract beans, and then removing the pods before use. In contrast, this vanilla sugar appears to be made by adding ground pods to sugar. This gives the sugar a light and dry texture, whereas homemade vanilla sugar can be dense and sticky. It has a light, fruity Tahitian vanilla flavor that doesn’t overwhelm.

In my experience, vanilla pulver becomes spongy and noticeable in baked goods such as cake, and can actually throw off the texture a bit. If you need instant vanilla sugar this may be good for you, but I recommend buying some of Beanilla’s excellent Tahitian vanilla beans and making your own.

Tahitian Vanilla fleur de sel (sea salt) ($9.25/2 oz)

I really enjoy trying different salts. This is a French fleur de sel mixed with ground tahitensis vanilla from Tahiti and Papua New Guinea. The salt is very moist and has a gray-brown color. It smells strongly of vanilla and has a piquant, mineral quality. The taste of the salt itself is very clean and strong, without any lingering mineral flavor. The vanilla flavor is well-balanced and not overwhelming, but I find the fruitiness of Tahitian vanilla to be an odd pairing with such a strong salt.

This is an interesting product because might not be something easily done at home.  The delicate structure of sea salt might not hold up to the moisture and stickiness of post-extract beans. I’m not sure if you can simply extract the vanilla flavor into salt by leaving some beans in the bag, the way you can with sugar.

I had a hard time thinking of how to use this in the Vanilla Review test kitchen. I asked Brent at Beanilla for some advice, and he said:

The salt is used by professional chocolate makers and pastry chefs. Because both salt and vanilla beans are often used to bring out the flavor of savory dishes, our tahitian vanilla Fleur De Sel can be used in a large variety of dishes. I have also used the salt on meats like pork tenderloin.

The best use I’ve found so far is in Rosemary Sea Salt truffles. The vanilla melds nicely with the chocolate, and the salt brings out the savory flavor of the rosemary. Lining cocktail or margarita glasses also sounds like a good idea.

Website: Available at http://www.salsamentum.nl
Pepper reviewed: Parameswaran’s Wynad Black Pepper
Origin: Wynad plateau, India
Cost: €7,75/85 g

Salsamentum recommended this peppercorn when I bought more of my favorite Portuguese fleur de sel. These are single-estate peppercorns, which I’ve never seen before. According to the marketing on the bag, they’re grown organically by Parameswaran on his small estate on the Wynad plateau in India. The bag I bought was labeled by Halen Môn, a British sea salt company, but it isn’t currently available at the Halen Môn website.

This Indian peppercorn is extremely aromatic, with a lingering, slow-burning heat. It has an herby scent, a rich texture, and isn’t overly bitter. The heat is relatively gentle, but it has a strong Tellicherry-like flavor that really stands out. I don’t normally buy such expensive peppercorns because a bag his size is only about a week’s supply, but it was definitely worth trying once. For me, this peppercorn is just too expensive for everyday use.

Website: http://www.RodelleVanilla.com
Vanilla reviewed: Rodelle Pure Vanilla Extract.
Cost: Rodelle provided this sample for review.

When a representative of Rodelle Vanilla contacted the site, I was excited about the opportunity to compare professionally-made extract to homemade. Rodelle sent an 8 oz bottle of their standard-quality pure vanilla extract (they also make a gourmet-quality).

The first thing that I looked for was the origin of the beans used, but this isn’t listed on the bottle. Rodelle’s website says that they use a custom blend of beans “from the top growing regions throughout the world”, but not a lot of additional detail is provided. The vanilla comes from several different growing regions, and might even be a mix of planifolia and tahetensis beans. Update: according to Rodelle’s comment below, this is 100% Madagascar grown vanilla (planifolia).

This is single-fold extract that, unlike homemade extract, provides standardized doses. Rodelle uses a heat percolation extraction method. There is an intense debate in the vanilla world over the use of heat. Opinions are split between those who say that higher temperatures bring out flavors that aren’t possible with cold extraction methods, and those who claim that heat destroys the more delicate flavors or brings out undesirable ones.

It was a surprise to see sugar listed on the ingredients in a upscale-marketed vanilla like Rodelle. Rodelle mentions the sugar several times on their site as an example of the organic ingredients used in the extract. Sugar reduces the alcohol nose, and is an FDA-permitted additive for vanilla extract, but many gourmet manufacturers now choose to leave it out.

The extract is reddish-brown in color and has a light viscosity. The aroma is dark and rich, and more like a whole vanilla bean than many commercial extracts. My best guess, based on the aroma, would be that this is a mixture of Madagascar- and PNG-sourced beans. The sugar indeed cuts the sharp alcohol smell, but there is still a sense of it in the mouth when exhaling after smelling the aroma.

Three different tests help get a sense of the different qualities of this vanilla extract. In a sugar icing test, it has good richness and depth, with strong tobacco overtones and the flavor of real beans. Mixing it into warmed milk brings out custard overtones, and also enhances the rich flavors of the milk. In a practical use scenario — the oatmeal cookie test — the vanilla extract comes across as very sweet, with a light flavor.  This is an extract that I would use for everyday cooking, but I prefer something a little more robust to for use as a feature flavor in something like ice cream or crème brûlée.

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Website: http://www.beanilla.com
Vanilla beans reviewed: India planifolia, Indonesia planifolia.
Cost: Beanilla provided this sample for review.

Beanilla’s excellent Madagascar, Tonga, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea vanilla beans are already featured on this site. Recently, they added India and Indonesia grown planifolia pods. Brent at Beanilla sent these vacuum-packed samples for review. Rarely do you find two beans with such different and distinct aromas, it’s an exciting and obvious contrast.

India planifolia (Grade A – $36.50 for 8 ounces, 1/2 pound)

More and more India vanilla is coming on the market. Two years ago it was difficult to track down, but in the past six months I’ve evaluated several samples.

Beanilla’s India vanilla beans are dark brown in color. The skins have a beautiful texture, the smoothness and sheen of the pods are evidence of expert curing. The pods are well-shaped and very flexible.  These vanilla beans are turgid with caviar.

Inside, the vanilla pods are oily and gooey. Sticky strings form as the bean is pulled apart. The aroma is dark and rich, with strong overtones of chocolate and prune. There’s a large yield of thick, moldable, and very oily caviar in each bean.

Indonesia planifolia (Grade A – $35.98 for 8 ounces, 1/2 pound)

Indonesia vanilla beans are often picked too early, and the curing process is typically hasty and unrefined. Gourmet Indonesia vanilla is rare; there’s only one other example on this site.

Beanilla’s Indonesia grown beans are black in color. The pods are flexible, but flat and not plump. The skins are moderately oily and only moderately supple, but these are still among the best cured Indonesia beans I’ve evaluated.

The caviar is pillowy and light. It has plenty of moisture, but isn’t especially sticky. Caviar yield is moderate. The beans have a spicy, cinnamon aroma that is a noticeable contrast to the India beans’ chocolate notes.

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Vanilla bean with frost

Vanilla bean with frost

Happy Vanilla season! Winter is vanilla time, and I look forward to posting a few new reviews and notes over the coming cold months.

It seems homemade vanilla extract has a new fan. Regular reader G. writes:

In the newest issue of [Cook's Illustrated] magazine (Sept./Oct, 2009), at page 31, the following short article was featured.

From Cook’s Illustrated, A Better Brand of Vanilla Extract: Your Own, September 1, 2009.

Could our homemade vanilla extract beat out the store-bought brands? Most of vanilla’s flavor compounds are soluble in either water or alcohol, so the most shelf-stable form of vanilla is vanilla extract, produced by soaking vanilla beans in a solution of 65 percent water and at least 35 percent alcohol. We wondered if we could make our own vanilla extract by soaking a split vanilla bean in heated vodka (which would contribute very little of its own flavor). After testing several ratios of vanilla beans to vodka, we arrived at 1 bean per ¾ cup of vodka as the proportion most closely resembling the potency of our recommended store-bought brand, McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract. We then tested our homemade extract against this supermarket product in sugar cookies, crème brûlée, and vanilla buttercream frosting. In each case, our extract outperformed the commercial version, boasting cleaner, more intense vanilla flavor.

Cooks illustrated offers their own variation of a hot-soak recipe:

To make vanilla extract, split a fresh bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place the seeds and split pod in a 1-cup sealable container. Add ¾ cup hot vodka (we used Smirnoff—a premium brand is not necessary) and let the mixture cool to room temperature. Seal the container and store at room temperature for one week, shaking gently every day. Strain the extract, if desired, and store in a cool, dark place. The extract should keep indefinitely.

Hot extraction vs cold extraction is an intense debate in the vanilla extract world. Some feel hot extraction gets flavor components that stay in the beans without the heat to dislodge them. Others feel that natural, ‘cold-pressed’ vanilla extract is the most pure because even mild heat destroys some of the delicate aromatics in the beans.

Thanks G!

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VanillaMart (India)

Website: http://www.VanillaMart.co.uk
Vanilla beans reviewed: 1o each 12-15cm (regular), 15-17cm (gourmet), and 18-21cm (premium gourmet) planifolia from India.
Cost: VanillaMart provided this sample for review.

It’s always nice to see another vendor of India-sourced vanilla beans. India vanilla is not yet widely marketed, but the industry in south India continues to grow. This is a European vendor, selling vanilla beans from the United Kingdom.

VanillaMart’s vanilla beans are grown by a group of farmers’ co-operatives in South India (Malnad region of Karnataka). Pods are intercropped with coffee, cardamom, black pepper, and other spices. VanillaMart has been selling these vanilla beans in the UK for over a year, and has found wide acceptance of non-Madagascar vanilla.

The samples arrived loosely packed, instead of vacuum packed. The pod texture is supple and has a nice, matte sheen. Not overly-greasy, like some vacuum packed beans can be. All have a wonderful, spicy aroma.

12-15cm India planifolia (Regular – no longer sold)

Since I started the review, these vanilla beans are no longer for sale, but VanillaMart sent some as a comparison sample. The regular beans are not as moist as the two gourmet-length varieties, but they have plenty of flexibility. The skin is a bit dry, though, with some light brown streaks.  They have a good aroma and are moderately plump.

The last picture (below) shows the regular-length vanilla.

15-17cm India planifolia (Gourmet – £24.00 per 500 grams)

The gourmet-length variety is my favorite. The skin is supple and dark brown. The pods are flexible and oily. They have an average plumpness. The caviar is also quite oily, and there are some pools of oil left on the plate after cutting. There is an average yield of caviar. Its texture is very nice, quite moist and shapes well.

The first picture (below) shows the gourmet-length beans. The remainder of the photos show the premium gourmet beans because, apart from the length, they are comparable in quality.

18-21cm India planifolia (Premium Gourmet – £27.00 per 500 grams)

These vanilla pods have an average plumpness, a bit more than the Gourmet, but are also very wide. The skin is dark brown in color, flexible and oily. The caviar is slightly oily and has a beautiful texture. There is an above-average caviar yield, due to the size of these vanilla beans.

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