Vanilla planifolia is the species of vanilla plant that includes the
vanilla of India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Guatemala, and
Uganda. It also includes the "Bourbon vanilla" type, the designation
for Vanilla planifolia grown on the islands of Madagascar, Reunion (in
the 19th century called Île Bourbon) and the Comoros. The vanilla
planifolia is commonly divided into two vanilla types; Bourbon vanilla
Mexican vanilla. The third type of vanilla is the vanilla tahitiensis.
The flavour of vanilla beans is very complex and is a product of its
environment. Therefore, just like with coffee beans and wine grapes,
there are significant taste differences depending on where and how the
vanilla plant is grown and how the vanilla beans are cured.
Bourbon vanilla or
Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla, produced from
planifolia plants introduced from the Americas, is the term used for
vanilla beans from Indian Ocean islands such as Madagascar, the
Réunion, formerly the Île Bourbon. About
75 percent of all vanilla beans world wide come from the Madagascar
area. They are rich and sweet and the thinnest type.
Vanilla products made from Bourbon vanilla beans have a fruity, sweet
creamy, hay-like aroma with vanillin and phenolic undertones. The
vanilla taste is generally stronger compared to using other vanilla
Mexican vanilla, made from the native Vanilla planifolia, is produced in much less quantity and marketed as the vanilla from the land of its origin. Mexican vanilla beans have a rich flavour but are scarcer than Bourbon beans. Mexican vanilla beans have a unique flavour, a more spicy and woody fragrance and a more subtle taste than the more popular Bourbon vanilla beans.
Tahitian vanilla beans are a different type of vanilla; "Vanilla tahitiensis" . These beans are darker, thicker, shorter and they contain more water and oil than the Vanilla planifolia types. The Vanilla tahitensis beans have a unique flavour and aroma, which is typically described as being floral and fruity.
The term French vanilla is not a vanilla type, but is used to designate preparations that have a strong vanilla aroma, and contain vanilla grains. The name originates from the French style of making ice cream custard base with vanilla beans, cream, and egg yolks.
Characteristics of the Vanilla Types
Vanilla types vary in flavor and fragrance when vanilla plants are grown in different parts of the world. Soil and climate differences as well as methods of curing the vanilla beans give unique qualities in beans. Vanilla beans grown only 20 miles apart can have subtle but distinct differences in flavor and appearance. Regardless of where the vanilla beans come from, they 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 vanilla 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 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 vanilla beans are very similar to Bourbon beans but they have a more mellow, smooth, quality, and a spicy, woody fragrance.
Tahitian vanilla beans are usually shorter, thicker, 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 vanilla types are equally good to use although their flavors are quite different. Experiment with them to determine which flavor you like most!