When it comes to the best type of vanilla bean, it comes down to your own preferences in regards to taste and aroma. There are four extremely popular types of vanilla beans that you should try. Each is grown in a different tropical country with its own unique taste, flavor, and smell. Vanilla actually develops different flavors depending on where its grown and the process it goes through after it’s been harvested. We’re going to take you through our simple guide to the best vanilla beans in the world so you can have a better idea of what to choose.
What is a Vanilla Bean?
The vanilla bean is the fruit of the Vanilla Orchid – yes, vanilla is technically considered a fruit! A vanilla bean is dark brown with a shiny almost waxy appearance. On average, they’re five to seven inches long. They’re skinny yet plump with vanilla beans inside of the pod in the form of hundreds of tiny specs. The vanilla bean is grown in tropical climates as it requires particular conditions to grow, including hot, humid weather and rich soil.
Where Did the Vanilla Bean Come From?
The vanilla bean has quite a rich and interesting history which nearly came to a standstill in the 1700s. The vanilla orchid originated in Mexico and was eventually brought to Europe when the Aztec empire was brought down in the 1500s. The news of this delightful vanilla spice spread like wildfire and vanilla was quickly introduced to the rest of the world.
Those who wished to grow vanilla outside of Mexico ran into a bit of a problem – okay, a large problem. Without the Melipona bee to pollinate the vanilla orchids, it was not possible to produce vanilla beans. At first, it seemed like the mass production of vanilla may die out – that is until 12-year-old Edmond Albius, a slave of the Réunion islands, figured out a way to hand-pollinate the vanilla orchids using just a thin stick and his thumb.
As a result of this discovery, vanilla was produced on a commercial scale.
How Many Types of Vanilla Beans Are There?
There are over 150 types of vanilla orchids in the world and two main species sold commercially: Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Tahitiensis.
When it comes down to which vanilla beans to choose, there are four that stand out above the rest – Madagascar Bourbon, Mexican, Indonesian, and Tahitian. These vanilla beans fall under these two categories and are considered to be the most popular worldwide.
The 4 Types of Vanilla Bean
1. Madagascar Bourbon
Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans are named after where they were harvested, in the Madagascar Bourbon islands so, no, they’re not a whiskey infused vanilla bean. While the exact percentage varies depending on the source, it is said that Madagascar is responsible for roughly 80% of the world’s vanilla supply.
The flavor of the Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla bean is rich, sweet, dark, and creamy with a sweet and buttery aroma.
Pairs best with
This type of vanilla bean has the most “classic” flavor and is fantastic for creating homemade vanilla ice cream. It is also a great addition to cookies, cakes, custards, puddings, and other sweet desserts and can be used as a flavorful vanilla twist in glazes for savory dishes like poultry, seafood, and pork.
As previously mentioned, vanilla beans originated in Mexico. If you decide to purchase Mexican vanilla beans, you’re probably tasting a vanilla flavor quite similar to the original. The Totonacs of Veracruz are credited as being the first to harvest vanilla beans and used them for a variety of purposes. Vanilla was considered a sacred herb and used in ritual offerings, as a perfume, and for medicine; however, it was rarely used as a flavoring. Only when the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs in the 1400s did they create a delicious and aromatic drink named “Xocohotl” which was essentially chocolate and vanilla.
The flavor of the Mexican vanilla bean is described as sweet, creamy and smooth, with a spicy, woody fragrance. This hint of spice can be described as being similar to nutmeg or clove.
Pairs best with
This type of vanilla is also a great candidate for homemade ice cream, custard, and chocolate as well as citrus fruits, barbeque sauces, and salsa.
Indonesia is the second-largest producer of vanilla beans, following Madagascar. Indonesian vanilla beans are mainly grown on farms in South Java and Bali before being brought to West Java for processing though vanilla beans are produced in Lombok, Flores, Sulawesi, and North and South Sumatra as well. Indonesia is an ideal climate for growing and producing vanilla beans thanks to its humid climate and soil conditions as well as the local curing techniques. These three factors are responsible for their impressive flavor.
Indonesian vanilla beans are known for having a unique smoky and woody flavor with earthy undertones. Scents of raisins, prunes, and dried figs have also been noted.
Pairs best with
Rich desserts, cookies, chocolate, and caramel.
The Tahitian vanilla bean is the only one of the four that belongs to the Vanilla Tahitiensis species. (The Madagascar Bourbon, Mexican, and Indonesian belong to the Vanilla Planifolia species.) This species of vanilla was only discovered in 1933 by botanist John William Moore in the Society Islands. The Tahitiensis species is technically a mutation of the Vanilla Planifolia and contains very little vanillin content. Therefore, the aroma and taste of the Tahitian vanilla bean have the highest contrast to the three other types.
The Tahitian vanilla bean has more of a fruity and floral scent, with cherry-like undertones. Other scents that have been noted are chocolate and caramel.
Pairs best with
Ice cream, custard, cakes, cookies, sweet sauces, and crème brûlée.
We hope our simple guide has given you a satisfying look into the best vanilla beans in the world. Although we like to believe that all vanilla beans were created equal, not all are used for consumption. These four types are the most commonly used in the world, not to mention the most aromatic and flavorful. When you’re reaching for your next vanilla-infused recipe, consider using any one of these vanilla beans for a complex boost of flavor to your ingredients.