Vanilla — frequently used as a term to describe a lack of style, creativity, or taste. But great vanilla flavor can be sophisticated, even sexy! What’s the big deal about vanilla? I think vanilla is similar to a fine wine – complex and fantastic. Sure, imitation vanilla has its place and can get the job done, but when you want authentic vanilla highlights you have a wide variety of options.
Sometimes it is used as a back drop for other flavors. Food chemists know that vanilla extract is quite often added to foods as a flavor enhancer, due to its alcohol content. Hmmmm, so, what’s this all about? Let’s talk about where vanilla comes from first.
Vanilla beans come from four regions of the world, and, just as with wines, each region contributes its own distinct flavors. We call that terrior. Terrior is the combination of climate, soil, and other local factors that influence a plant’s growth and production. The flavors from he bean influence the flavors of the finished extracts, along with the choice of how the extract is produced, and what medium is used for the liquid.
- Madagascar Bourbon ~ has a creamy sweet and rich flavor with a sweet buttery aroma. 80% of the world’s vanilla crop is this type and considered the best quality. Ideal for baking, drinks and desserts.
- Indonesian ~ is sweet with a smoky/woody flavor. For richer desserts that call for chocolate or caramel.
- Mexican ~ is the original home for the vanilla bean. It has a creamy, sweet flavor with a hint of nutmeg and cloves. Perfect for baked goods.
- Tahitian ~ has an aroma that is floral with tones of ripe fruit. The flavor is rich of chocolate, licorice and caramel.
- Hawaii ~ is sweet and aromatic, a good general purpose vanilla.
- Papua New Guinea ~ has intense flavor with coconut overtones.
Note that all of these vanilla producing regions are tropical. In recent years, these regions have been devastated by storms and climate events, which have adversely affected the vanilla production. Even without climate issues, vanilla is quite labor intensive to produce. The pods, which look like long beans, are the fruit of vanilla orchids, taking 9 months to mature on the vine. But before the pods begin, the flowers must be hand-pollinated. Once mature, the pods are hand-harvested, then baking in the sun to ferment and cure for months. The end product, the dried vanilla pods, may be sold intact, or processed into paste or extract.
- Vanilla pods can be split and the tiny beans scraped out. You may choose to add the scraped pod to your dish to intensify the infused flavor, removing it before proceeding with the preparation. This may be your freshest form of vanilla, best used to add flavor to desserts and drinks. Be sure your pods are flexible — if they are too dry and crack, they are old and have lost moisture and flavor.
- Vanilla paste is actually the tiny vanilla bans that have been scraped from the pod. Their flavor is VERY intense. This is the luscious flavor, those little specks, you find in the best French vanilla ice cream. Be sure to keep this product tightly sealed to preserve. Because the beans are removed by hand, this form of vanilla is, ounce per ounce about the same price as silver!
- Vanilla extract is an infusion most often made with vanilla pods, beans and some type of alcohol. Extract is usually blended and mixed into a dish and then baked. This has a strong flavor and is used in small amounts. Be sure to keep this product tightly sealed to preserve.
what to do with your vanilla?