Dry Vanilla Beans

Vanilla Beans

Where do vanilla beans come from!?

Vanilla beans come from the vanilla plant, actually from the orchid variety "Vanilla Planifolia". Of the many thousands of varieties of orchids this is the only one that bears edible fruit. It is a rather small plain yellow orchid that produces these long pods. The pods look like green beans when ripe and after picked they need to dry and then ferment to develop the rich vanilla flavor. It is a complicated process involving many months which makes vanilla beans and related vanilla products rather expensive. Vanilla orchids are grown in tropic climates, primarily Mexico, Tahiti, Madagascar, Reunion, Mauritius, Comoro, India, Indonesia, Uganda, and Tongo, with three-fourths of the world's supply coming from Madagascar.

In order to produce the fruit, the orchid flowers are laboriously hand-pollinated at a very specific time of the day when the flowers are open during a short one-month flowering period. The fruit is not permitted to fully-ripen, since this will cause the beans to split, thus losing commercial value. Hand-harvesting occurs four to six months after the fruit appears on the vines of the vanilla plant. Once harvested, the green beans go through a treatment process lasting another six months where the vanilla beans are soaked in hot water, rolled in blankets to "sweat," dried on flats in the sun to evaporate the water, and then stored in a ventilated room to slowly ferment and produce their unique aroma and flavor. 

Quality and aroma of the vanillin flavor varies by growth location, since some areas produce beans with higher vanillin content. The resulting dark brown vanilla bean is usually 14-28 cm long, weighs about 5 grams and yields about 1/2 teaspoon of seeds.

Choosing vanilla beans

There are over 150 varieties of vanilla orchids, but only two species are used commercially to flavor and fragrance foods and beverages; Bourbon and Tahitian. Bourbon vanilla beans are botanically known as Vanilla Planifolia and originally came from the Gulf Coast of Mexico. When grown in Mexico they're called Mexican vanilla beans. On the other hand, beans from the same plant stock are called Bourbon beans if they grow in Madagascar, India, Indonesia, and many other regions. The big exception are the beans from Tahiti. Even though Tahitian vanilla is now considered its own species, the original plant stock also came from Mexico.

Vanilla Beans vary in flavor and fragrance when the plants are grown in different parts of the world. Soil and climate differences as well as methods of curing the beans imbue unique qualities in beans. Vanilla plants grown only 20 miles apart can have subtle but distinct differences in flavor and appearance.

Tips for choosing quality vanilla beans

Premium vanilla beans, regardless of where they come from, should have a rich, full aroma, be oily to the touch, and sleek in appearance. Beans to avoid are those with very little scent, are smoky, brittle or dry, or are mildewed. Bourbon beans are long and slender, with a very rich taste and smell, have thick, oily skin, contain an abundance of tiny seeds, and have a strong vanilla aroma. Bourbon beans from Madagascar and the Comoros are described as having a creamy, haylike, and sweet, with vanillin overtones. Bourbon beans from other regions will be similar if they are picked at peak ripeness and are properly cured. Mexican beans are very similar to Bourbon beans though they have a more mellow, smooth, quality and a spicy, woody fragrance.Tahitian beans are usually shorter, plumper, and contain a higher oil and water content than Bourbon beans. The skin is thinner, they contain fewer seeds, and the aroma is fruity and floral. They are often described as smelling like licorice, cherry, prunes, or wine.

All three types of vanilla are equally good to use though their flavors are quite different. One should experiment with the different types to determine which flavor one likes most.

Using vanilla beans!

The entire vanilla bean is filled with flavor and, in fact, the bean (also called pod) has more flavor than the seeds. You can cut the vanilla bean and use a portion at a time or you can use the whole vanilla bean, depending on the depth of vanilla flavor you wish. To cut open a vanilla bean, lay it flat on a cutting surface. Holding one end of the bean to the surface, carefully slice the bean open lengthwise. When you separate the bean, thousands of tiny seeds are exposed. By cutting the bean open before placing it in a liquid, more of the surface of the bean is exposed, and the greater the flavoring properties. You can scrape the seeds from the bean before using the vanilla beans if you choose.

Vanilla beans can be used several times depending on how strenuously you've used them. For instance, if you've placed a vanilla bean in a pitcher of lemonade or a container of mulled cider or wine, the bean will still contain a lot of flavor when the beverage is gone. However, if you soak a vanilla bean in a hot cream mixture then scrape out the seeds, you will probably will not have much vanilla flavor left in the pod. Rinse and dry the beans after using them. If there is only the bean left (no seeds), or, if you've used the bean several times for flavoring beverages let the pieces dry, and retire them to the sugar or coffee jar. They will exclude a delicate vanilla flavor and fragrance to the sugar or coffee for some time to come. Vanilla beans that have been used once or twice can also be ground up and used to add additional flavor to ice creams, cookies, and many other foods.

Keeping vanilla beans!

Do not throw out dry or withered vanilla beans! They will rehydrate in a warm liquid and will still contain a lot of flavor. Vanilla beans will keep very long when stored in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. Don't refrigerate beans as this can cause them to harden and crystallize. In the humid tropics, where the beans are grown, they are wrapped in oiled or waxed paper and stored in tin boxes. In a cooler, dryer climate, keep the beans in an airtight plastic tub or glass jar. Bourbon vanilla beans may develop a frosting of natural vanillin crystals if you keep them for a while. This usually occurs over time and not when the beans are first cured and dried. These crystals indicate that the beans are high in natural vanillin and are of very good quality. The crystals are quite edible and very flavorful. If you are uncertain whether your vanilla beans are covered with crystals or mildewed, take them into the sunlight. The crystals are similar to mineral crystals and will reflect the sun's rays, creating the colors of the rainbow. Mildew, on the other hand, will be dull and flat in the light, and may also smell bad. If the bean is mildewed, throw it away as the mildew will spread to uninfected vanilla beans.