Vanilla

Vanilla drying at Raiatea plantation“Vanilla” is anything but plain! This article should help you choose and evaluate vanilla beans. If you can’t find the answer to your vanilla question here, try browsing the frequently asked vanilla questions.

What is vanilla?
True vanilla flavor comes from the cured seed pod (bean) of the vanilla orchid (Wikipedia). The properly prepared pod contains vanillin and 100s of other flavor compounds. Vanilla orchids are the only orchids that produce an edible seed. The primary producers of vanilla beans are tropical areas: Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea.

Planifolia vs tahitensis vanilla

There are two distinct types of vanilla orchid:

  • Vanilla Planifolia beans have a strong, familiar vanilla flavor, it is often called ‘Madagascar Bourbon’. Planifolia is the same variety grown in Mexico, but now synonymous with Madagascar.
  • Vanilla Tahitensis is a weaker vanilla with ‘fruity, floral, and sweet’ flavors created by the compound heliotropin. Tahitensis is a mutated form of a planifolia orchid from Tahiti, though most tahitensis vanilla is now grown in Papa New Guinea. This vanilla is favored by pastry chefs.

The planifolia kill — water vs sun (Bourbon vs Mexican Vanilla)

water-sun-kill800

Bourbon (above) and Mexico (below) style vanilla beans

One crucial detail of the curing process can help us distinguish between types of planifolia vanilla beans. Planifolia beans must be “killed” after harvest to stop growth. The method of killing will produce a unique vanilla bean.

  • Water Kill (Bourbon method) The vast majority of vanilla beans are killed by steeping in hot water for a few minutes. This technique was developed in the former French Bourbon Islands (now Madagascar). The time and temperature of the kill varies by curer, introducing a bit of difference to beans from various places. This method tends to give a soft, pliable vanilla bean.
  • Sun Kill (Mexican method) Vanilla beans are put on concrete slabs at mid-day and the beans are killed by the hot sun. This is harsher than the bourbon kill and results in a woodier vanilla bean. This method is used primarily in Mexico.

Notice how the skin of the Bourbon style vanilla cut cleanly, but the skin of the Mexican vanilla is ragged and woody.

Tahitensis vanilla beans mature on the vine are are not killed after harvest.

Single source vanilla

Single source boutique vanilla (top) and third world vanilla from a curing house (bottom).

Single source boutique vanilla (top) and third world vanilla from a curing house (bottom)

Most vanilla is grown in the third world. Vanilla farmers sell raw vanilla beans to central curing houses. Curing houses process the raw pods into the fermented, fragrant vanilla beans that we know. These professionals process tons of vanilla from all over a region. When you buy vanilla processed by a curing house, there is little chance to get beans from the same farm. This is not universally true, but is largely the case in Madagascar, PNG, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico, Tahiti, etc.

At plantations in the first world, and select plantation elsewhere, vanilla is cured ‘on the farm’ and marketed as a high quality niche product. This vanilla will always be more expensive because labor, land, and other expenses are higher in the first world. The boutique value of “terroir”, vanilla reflecting the place it is grown, increases the cost further. This is the case in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and some plantations in Tonga and Tahiti.

*Please note that the term “first world vanilla” may appear on the site instead. I have switched to “single source” as it more accurately describes the situation while not sounding as abrasive.

Grade ‘A’ vs grade ‘B’ vanilla beans

Vanilla grade A and B comparison.

Vanilla grade A and B comparison

Vocabulary for describing vanilla bean quality seems to vary a bit between vendors, which can make it more difficult to know exactly what you’re getting. To cut through the confusion, this site uses the following quality labeling: vanilla beans are graded A and B.

  • Grade ‘A’ vanilla beans (also called gourmet or prime). These beans are oily and moist. There are about 100 to 120 grade ‘A’ beans (6-7 inch) per pound (7.5 per oz). This vanilla is visually attractive so it can be a feature ingredient in gourmet cuisine. 30% – 35% moisture content.
  • Grade ‘B’ vanilla beans (also called extract beans). This vanilla is less moist and less attractive. But don’t worry, because the flavor isn’t in the water. There are about 140 to 160 grade ‘B’ beans (6-7 inch) per pound (10 per oz). 15% – 25% moisture content.

Choosing vanilla beans

splitend

Slightly split ends indicate fully ripened beans

Minor splits in the end of the bean, like those shown here, are fine. These actually indicate that the vanilla fully ripened and developed before harvest. Vanilla harvested at this point will have the greatest intensity of flavor.

Vanilla tattoo "JDD"

Vanilla tattoo "JDD"

This image shows another type of vanilla imperfection — a tattoo. At first glance this might look like insect damage, but it’s actually the initials of the grower. This practice is common in Madagascar where bean rustling is a problem. Read more about it towards the end of the Riziky vanilla review, and see the vanilla tattoo gallery. The Malagasy alphabet will help you identify the tattoos on your own beans:a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, v, y, z.

Vanilla bean with frost

Vanilla bean with frost

Beans may have vanillin crystals on the outside, these will melt back into the bean if heated — crystals are not considered an indicator of quality. Read more about vanilla frost, crystals, and givre.

For the purposes of making vanilla extract, we want to use Grade B beans if possible. “Why?”, you may ask. “Isn’t gourmet always better?” NO.

  • Grade B beans have less water weight. You get more bean for the buck because you’re not paying for water. This also means that less water ends up in your extract.
  • With Grade A you pay for appearance, which doesn’t matter to us.
  • We get the same beans as Grade A, but at a fraction of the cost.

Gourmet is great when extract beans are not available, but try to get Grade B if you can.

What is vanilla extract?
Vanilla extract is made by transferring the flavor and aromas of vanilla beans into alcohol (usually vodka, but sometimes brandy or rum). Vodka is the alcohol of choice because it has a neutral flavor. Other liquors can be used, but they contribute flavors of their own. Commercial extracts use a neutral flavored grain alcohol (vodka), but you are free to use rum, brandy, gin, whatever. I stick to vodka because I can always add a hint of brandy or rum directly to a dish.

How many beans are used per unit of alcohol? This is an easy one – it’s regulated by US law. Really!

From the FDA 21CFR169:

  • Extract is 70 proof/35% alcohol.
  • Extract contains 13.35 oz. of bean per gallon of alcohol. It seems that 13.35 oz of bean need merely to be exposed to the alcohol, not that this amount of matter is extracted/dissolved into the alcohol, I await confirmation and will update accordingly.
  • Moisture content of beans should be under 25%, more beans are required when moisture is higher.
  • Remember, the quality of the beans doesn’t matter for these regulated proportions, only the weight

In plain English:
“13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of extract is single fold (single strength) vanilla extract. As most vanilla beans are ~120/pound or 7.5 beans per ounce of weight. A gallon of extract is 128 fluid ounces, so that would mean ~98 beans per gallon or SIX (6) whole beans to make ONE cup (8 fluid ounces) of single fold vanilla extract…Anyone who tells you any differently is just teaching you how to make vanilla flavored booze.kieth.

Take that point to heart! To make an extract you must use at least 0.8 ounces (6) vanilla beans per cup of final extract. Hand extracts should use extra beans because they lack the efficiency of mechanical extraction processes. I recommend 1 ounce (30 grams, 7-8 beans) per 1 cup (250ml) of 40%(80 proof) alcohol.

Recipes on the web are all over the place: some call for 1 bean in a gallon of brandy left for one year, others call for 2-4 beans per cup with 1-6 months soak time. Few come anywhere close to reaching the ‘legal’ requirements of an extract.

Best extract alcohol concentration
A bit of definitive info on the best concentration of alcohol for extracting beans:

  • Glenn at Amadeus Trading says that his company starts off with a relatively “pure” alcohol and then adds water to get it to 35%.
  • According to this great lit review put together by Garth at Heilala Vanilla, a 1995 study showed that 10% more vanillin was extracted at 47.5% ethanol than 95% ethanol (pdf page 16).

Vanilla bean snobbery
Vanilla beans grow in tropical locales where they require exotic hand pollination and extended curing. This invites wine-culture snobbery and claims of terroir. Dealers and fans alike make whimsical and sometimes contradictory claims about vanillas from various regions. Take this with a grain of salt, as even food critics usually preferred imitation vanilla in a blind taste test.

Is there a huge difference? You’ll have to find out for yourself, but you can get an idea by looking through the vanilla bean reviews on this site. I was skeptical at first, but I hope the vanilla image galleries show a big difference in the characteristics of vanilla beans from different growing regions.

Countries that market gourmet vanilla beans
Below is a list of countries that actively market ‘gourmet’ vanilla. There are major vanilla producing countries not included on this list. Wikipedia says China produces 10% of the world’s vanilla, but I can’t find anywhere to buy it.

See the most up-to-date list here.

Vanilla tahitensis

Vanilla planifolia

Organic and certified organic vanilla beans
Some vendors offer ‘organic’, ‘certified organic’, or similarly labeled beans. Certified organic vanilla should be free of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc, as certified by a reliable government or standards organization. Organic farming may also promote sustainable land practices that benefit the environment.

If you want certified organic vanilla beans, make sure you are getting something that’s truly certified to be organic. Often beans are just labeled ‘organic’. As far as I can tell, the only vendors in this review that offer certified organic vanilla beans are The Organic Vanilla Company and Amadeus Trading Company. If certified organic cultivation is important to you, go for it.

**A additional option I personally endorse is the Demeter “biodynamic” certification. While it’s less recognized than “NOP organic”, it’s more stringent and a more serious commitment to sustainable land practices. Learn more about biodynamic vanilla in Costa Rica on the Vanilla Vanilla/Rainforestspices.com page.**

Frequently asked vanilla questions
If you didn’t find the answer to your vanilla questions here, try browsing these frequently asked vanilla questions.

Vanilla

Vanilla

44 comments

  1. I compiled this equivalency table from my own vanilla equivalency calculations and experiments, and the fantastic Cook’s Thesaurus:

    Vanilla product equivalency chart
    AmountVanilla product
    1 inchbean (*1)
    1 teaspoonextract (*2)
    1/4 to 1/2 teaspoonpowder/ground (*3)
    1 teaspoonvanilla paste (*4)

    *1,2,3,4 – see my notes.

  2. i would like to know any vanilla buyer , importer or exporter in malaysia

  3. Hi, I live in Mexico City and have some friends that live in the mountains of Oaxaca that grow vanilla. They are just starting out and have not yet found a buyer for their beans. Can you send me names and locations of vanilla bean buyers in Mexico?

    Thanks,

    David

  4. i need more information..
    how can i get a vendor from melacca?
    thanks…

  5. Assalammualaikum..dan selamat sejahtera…
    Saya memerlukan maklumat mengenai harga terkini vanila?
    Cara untuk mendapatkannya?
    Kursus mengenai vanila?
    kesesuaian tanah?
    sistem penanaman?
    dan lain-lain lagi mengenai penanaman vanila ini…
    terima kasih…

  6. David, I would love to buy some beans from Mexico. Would they be able to sell to a US consumer?

  7. Assalamualaikum

    I need more information on:-

    what the suitable type of Soil for Vanilla?
    How to take care & cost of vanilla plantation?
    Who the buyer in Malaysia?

  8. I want to know regarding seller of vanilla orchid in India

  9. What an amazing site this is! Kudos to the person/folks who assembled it. I’m focusing on vanilla now and am looking forward to reading the other spices listed. Sure glad I found it.

  10. Great information! I have a question… My mom bought a large bottle of vanilla extract when she was on a cruise. Since she was outside the US, I am assuming that the product didn’t have to meet FDA guidelines. Should I be concerned about the quality? Can I have the same expectations about the shelf life?

  11. i have dried vanilla beans in bulk quantity
    intrested pls contact 016-3094063 (malaysia)

  12. Thanks for such an informative website, which I just discovered when I Googled Heilala Vanilla. I just received and used my first vanilla bean from Heilala and it is of far superior quality, taste and appearance to the brand I usually get from the supermarket. In fact I just checked the packaging of the ones sold by a national spice maker and all it says is “packaged in Australia from imported ingredients”. I’ll be searching out Heilala from now on; at least I know their origin.

  13. I have got a 109 acres of land and I am planning to build an inhouse Vanila farm.
    Can somebody help me , if you have some sort of plan of the green house and all the material used to build the green house and the type of material needed or used for planting vanila indoors.

    Esala

    Fiji

  14. I have got a 109 acres of land and I am planing to build an inhouse Vanila farm.
    Can somebody help me , if you have some sort of plan of the green house and all the material used to build the green house and the type of material needed or used for planting vanila indoors and other information needed in order to produce good quality vanila

    Esala

    Fiji

  15. i am doing a project on vanilla beans and would like to know if they are grown in Maotte

  16. Hi, to all Vanilla lover, if you are interested to cultivate vanilla in Malaysia, please contact me at email:allanliew_989@yahoo.com, h/p:012-3392989
    Thank you

  17. HI I INTEND TO START A PILOT PROJECT OR GROWING VANILLA IN LAHORE PAKISTAN,CAN ANYBODY PLEASE GUIDE IF IT IS POSSIBLE TO GROW VANILLA IN PAKISATAN

  18. hi, we are intending to start a vanilla project in mozambique, but where to find the seed or seedlings to start with? many thanks

  19. Wow, great site.
    I live in the Philippines, and I’m (ever so slowly) trying to build my own mini-vanilla garden. Maybe even pollinate, harvest, cure and use my own beans on day. I just started with my own little vanilla vine, and 1.5 years later I’ve been able to propagate it into 3 vines, with very little care (thanks to the local weather). I hope to see this site updated from time to time, as I’m serious about growing that garden!

  20. Iam a student doing my final year and Iam interested in growing vanilla in PNG. I would like to find a permanent buyer for my production. Iam currently engazed in small holders who would supply vanilla so that we export our commodity to a buyer who wishes to buy it from us.

  21. Great site!

    Thanks so much. I am new to vanilla beans and since they are not inexpensive I wanted information on how to choose them, where to get them, etc.

    It looks like Tahitensis, grade B is just fine for baking.

    Best regards,

  22. Hi everyone, i’m a student at suffolk University in Boston,MA, USA i just got my Bachelor in Finance and i will start my Master as a Financial Economist in September, but i’m originally from Benin West Africa. I’m going back home this summer and to grow vanilla and see how is goes, if it goes well i will consider exporting my production. The problem is, i do not have a lot of knowledge about vanilla production and how or to whom to sell it. Can some one please give me some advice, and why not contact of different vanilla buyers.

    Thanks

  23. Hi Farid,

    There are two pages of vanilla growing guides linked on this site:
    http://www.vanillareview.com/c.....w-vanilla/

    You should especially read Mr. Daudi’s report about growing and selling vanilla in Africa. It is not an easy job, there is very little money in it, and few organizations buy from African producers.

  24. Hi, Ian.

    Could you write a review about Madagascan Bourbon Vanilla Pods from Vanillabazaar? My friend is planning to purchase some premium Madagascan vanilla pods from this store because of the free shipping offer in Europe, but we can’t find much review regarding their products.

    Great site. Keep up the good work. ;)

    Catherine

  25. Hi, I am Vacationing at the new Intercontinental hotel in downtown Monterey, CA on Cannery Row. We had lunch here at our hotel and my salad dressing was
    Called vanilla bean-minus 8 dressing. When I asked our server what it meant, he explained that freezing the vanilla bean to minus 8 was the best way to preserve the bean for freshness. It lead me to this website and now I am curious about this freezing process. Doey anyone know anything about it?

  26. @ Frances
    I am in the Philippines right now. I’m also VERY interested in building my own mini-vanilla garden. But I can not find cutlings anywhere in the Philippines. Can you help me with informations on where to buy a few cutlings…or maybe sell me a cutling from your garden :)

  27. I have organic vanilla beans for sell from 100g to 30kg (first year of harvesting). My Farm located in the heart of Borneo Island, Malaysia. Malaysian free postage. 0168021031

  28. hi there, I’m from Indonesia

    I am trying to make a vanilla extract, so here’s my question: can I actually dilute a 180 proof alcohol to around 70 – 95 proof (by adding water), then use it for extraction afterward? Or should I just use the 190 proof alcohol?
    One thing I’m afraid is that I found the alcohol in some kinda chinese medicine store which the store owner said the alcohol content was 90% (180 proof), and he always use it to extract herbal medicin, shown in his store window.
    Any help’s appreciated, :D

  29. Great information. I am planning to start a cacao and vanila farm in the Philippines. Is there any information on where to buy the plants?. Also are their any conferences held around the world about vanila?. I look forward to any assistance.
    Kind regards,
    Peter

  30. Hi,

    I am looking for a supplier of organic vanilla beans to wholesale in Australia. If anyone is looking for a buyer and are the source, not wholesaler, please get in touch.

    Thanks

  31. Hi, do u know any company or farm in the philippines to buy vanilla plants or the 3 ft. shoots to plant. Thanks Jim

  32. i have vanilla from java indonesia, and now anyone can tell me where i can sell vanilla beans?

  33. i would like to know how can i ferment vanilla beans without using alcohol,pls educate me thank you

  34. hey evryone i dont like those pic yall put up there tht s** look nasty

  35. Hi,

    Can please give me a price idea on the B grade madagascar vanilla, as of now.

  36. we have Madagascar vanilla any one interesting to buy please contact us

  37. You can find most all Asian producers and dealers at Alibaba.com just type in what you are looking for.

    China hold better than 10% of the global vanilla trade and over the last seven years that I have been in China. The vanilla farmers are growing at a steady pace and are producing some high quality product.

    We at the Orchid Conservatory and Research Center are currently working with a few vanilla farmers as free consultants.

  38. I am in Indonesia, i grow vanilla in north sulawesi and will buy vanilla from Indonesia and Malaysia.

  39. I would LOVE to be able to purchase straight from a grower to cure/dry and make my own extract, etc. Of course I know nothing about it, but that would be the fun of it!

Comments are now closed.