Vanilla: It’s complicated! Even nature makes it difficult to get your vanilla fix. Of the 20,000 orchid varieties, only one produces something edible: vanilla planifolia, a luminous specimen indeed. It’s extremely time-consuming to procure vanilla beans, which are the fruit of vanilla planifolia, since the orchid only blossoms one day in the year. These days, the flowers are hand-pollinated. Then the pods take six weeks to reach full size (six to 10 inches) and eight to nine months after that to mature. (Divas!) When picked, they are green, and require a three-to-six month curing process of a boiling water bath followed by sunshine and sweating it out in blankets at night. That’s when they turn that rich, dark brown and attain that fabulous taste and aroma.
You’re probably starting to get a sense of why vanilla beans, when you spy them, can be so darn expensive. Here’s a breakdown of the types of vanilla products you might see on the market.
Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican and Tahitian are the most common types of beans. Bourbon-Madagascar hails from Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, and Réunion, a West Indian island 420 miles away. The thinnest of the three beans, they’re rich and sweet and account for about 75 percent of the world’s supply. (We sell both an extract and a paste featuring this type of bean.) Then there are thicker Mexican vanilla beans, generally hailing from the Veracruz region. (We have a lovely pure Mexican vanilla extract.) Buy your Mexican vanilla from a reliable source, since some products contain coumarin, a substance banned by the FDA. Then there are Tahitian vanilla beans, the thickest of the three, and the most aromatic. (Experience its bouquet in extract form!) We exclusively carry a trio of Nielsen-Massey’s famous vanilla extracts, so you can try each type, right here.
Vanilla powder is a whole, dried vanilla bean, ground up. Because it doesn’t involve any alcohol, as extract does, its flavor tends not to evaporate from baked goods as much. It can be lovely for baked goods, custards and the like. You can ask after it at your favorite bakery, online, and at specialty cake suppliers.
OK, here’s where you want to watch your step. If you’re in the grocery store, and the price of a bottle of vanilla extract takes your breath away, you’re likely looking at a bottle of pure vanilla extract. Eye that label closely; if it says “pure vanilla extract,” it means the FDA has insisted that it contains 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and 35 percent alcohol. (We sell some here!) “Vanilla extract” is still generally very good stuff, is also held to FDA standards (though they’re not quite as rigid). “Imitation vanilla” is where you’re entering the land of chemicals and usually not so many actual vanilla beans, if any at all. These often have a bitter aftertaste. If you can afford it, buy the real deal, as you won’t usually need much.
Don’t feel like splitting open a pricey vanilla bean, scraping out its seeds, and yada yada yada? Consider vanilla bean paste, a thick, rich paste that combines vanilla pod seeds with extract. It can be lovely in frosting or ice cream. Vanilla bean paste and extract measurements can be used as a 1:1, interchangeably. (Buy ours here!)
So lovely: You can store your whole vanilla beans in an airtight container of sugar (usually about two beans in a pound) for a week before removing the beans (and using them for whatever your heart desires!) Shake that sugar over cinnamon rolls hot out of the oven, spoon it into coffee for natural vanilla-flavored coffee, shake it over fruit, or use it however you like! (Don’t want to deal with the minimum of labor? We get it, and we’ve got it!)