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You just wanted to make a cake and now you’re standing in front of a row of different types of vanillas, unsure of which one to choose.
With different price points and packaging, they all seem pretty exotic, but which one will be the best for what you’re making?
And, since vanilla is the second-most expensive ingredient in the world (second only to saffron), how will you make sure you’re buying the one that will offer you the most options?
There are over 150 types of vanilla in the world, including Indian vanilla, Tonga vanilla, and Ugandan vanilla—but the two most prevalent types found in most stores are Madagascar or bourbon vanilla, and Tahitian vanilla. Also worth a look: Mexican vanilla, as it’s made from the very same plant as bourbon vanilla, and Mexico is, in fact, the birthplace of vanilla.
We found out straight from the experts what makes each of these three types of vanilla the same, or different, from the next in hopes that you won’t ever have to put baking a cake on hold to debate this ingredient choice ever again.
According to Michel Mustiere, Culinary Director of Velas Resorts, with multiple locations throughout Mexico, Mexican vanilla is cultivated in Veracruz, Mexico, and is the product of an orchid that gives birth to the vanilla flower after pollination.
Mustiere explains that the vanilla is harvested after the flower dies, usually around nine months, and then the green pod is cut from the plant. The pod, he says, is then allowed to dry for 20 days, then undergoes a fermentation process.
“After 20 days of drying, the vanilla pods are placed in wooden boxes and covered with palm rugs, to ripen them to finally place them in vacuum packaging, and thus preserve their notes and their flavor,” he says, adding that the vanilla is usually aged for two to three months.
This process seals in the complex flavor and aroma of the vanilla. According to Mustiere, you can pick up all of these notes: “metallic, astringent, smoked, pungent, toasted, gritty, spiciness of tuberose, sweet, clove, black pepper, cinnamon, raisin, wood, wet earth, dry chili, cocoa, tamarind, sesame, and mold.” (So not dissimilar to tasting good wine.)
And while it may not be as easy to pick out Mexican vanilla with an untrained palate, there is a way to tell it apart from other vanillas by just looking at it. Mexican vanilla, says Mustiere, is thinner, as opposed to Tahitian vanilla, which is thicker. He also notes that it is more subtle and delicate on the palate than other types of the flower.
“We use the vanilla originally from Mexico, because it has a peculiar flavor and smell that is [unique to] the type of land where it is planted,” he says, explaining that both the particular taste and aromas are distinct to the Mexican vanilla. (Again, not unlike wine, which is so heavily influenced by terroir.)
Recipe: Homemade Vanilla Extract
Also called bourbon vanilla, Madagascan vanilla comes from the same plant and has the same basic flavor notes as Mexican vanilla. The only significant difference is that in Mexico, the plant is pollinated by a bee and in Madagascar, humans need to pollinate the flower, leading to its higher price. (And despite the name, it is not actually made with bourbon whiskey; instead, “Bourbon” refers to a place where this vanilla was grown.)
The vanilla orchid was initially brought from Mexico to the areas surrounding the Indian Ocean in the 1800s, and those lands now supply two-thirds of the world’s vanilla. Madagascar leads the pack, with Indonesia in second place (while Indonesian vanilla comes from the same plant, it is said to have a smokier aroma and taste than creamier, sweeter Madagascan and Mexican vanilla).
In the Pacific Ocean, there is an island in Tahiti that is referred to as “Vanilla Island.” It got its name because 80 percent of the country’s vanilla is produced there.
Tahitian Vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis) is a natural hybrid between two vanilla species: Vanilla planifolia, better known as bourbon vanilla, and Vanilla odorata, a very rare vanilla found in the forests of Belize and Guatemala. “It represents only 1 percent of the global production of vanilla,” says Thibault Uzeel, Assistant Food and Beverages Manager for Pearl Resorts of Tahiti.
During the growing period, he says, Tahitian vanilla is fertilized by hand. After nine months, it’s picked, dried under the sun, and then packaged in vacuum flasks in the absence of light to preserve the flavor.
The flavor of Tahitian vanilla is heavily influenced by the tropical climate and the soil, he says, and contains flavor notes of caramel and anise, with delicate touches of chocolate that melt in the mouth.
Baking with any of these vanilla varieties will result in delicious desserts, but for simpler things like vanilla pound cake or homemade Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, try using different kinds to really highlight their specific characters.
You can also buy fresh vanilla beans and make our Vanilla Extract recipe (after steeping, dry the pods and add them to a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar for baking and sweetening drinks—because you don’t want to let one iota of that precious flavor go to waste, no matter which variety you choose).