“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Papua New Guinea (PNG) – Most tahitensis vanilla is grown in PNG.
- Tahiti – Only a tiny amount of vanilla is actually grown on Tahiti.
- Madagascar – The ‘classic’ vanilla.
- Papua New Guinea (PNG) – A lesser known, but major, vanilla producer.
- Indonesia – Said to be of poor flavor and particularly suited to baking.
- Mexico – Though vanilla originated in Mexico, it is no longer grown in significant quantities. Mexican vanilla beans are very expensive. Cheap tourist vanilla almost certainly isn’t vanilla at all.
- Hawaii – Vanilla is grown commercially in very small quantities on the Big Island of Hawaii.
- Uganda – Large vanilla beans are grown in this African country.
- Tonga – Some very interesting planifolia beans are grown in this tiny Pacific island nation.
- India – I’m working on adding some Indian vanilla beans to the review.
- Vanuatu – Great vanilla beans from the South Pacific.
- Australia – Broken Nose Vanilla will soon sell Australian vanilla beans.
- New Zealand – Heilala Vanilla has an indoor plantation in NZ.
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.
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