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Vanilla is one of the world’s favourite spices. With its unique taste and wonderful aroma, vanilla has the power to transform any dish into the ultimate foodie delight. But you know that already, don’t you? You’re probably here because there are still some things about vanilla that you’re unsure of. Well then, you’ve come to the right place.
Here at Native Vanilla, we are endlessly fascinated about all things vanilla, and passionate about sharing our expert knowledge on this remarkable plant. That’s why we have created this list of frequently asked questions — to satisfy your hunger for knowledge.
This article will give you the inside scoop on everything you’ve ever wanted to know about vanilla: from the different types and grades of vanilla, to vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla powder, why vanilla is so expensive, and much, much more. So let’s dive right in, starting with the basics.
What is vanilla?
The term ‘vanilla’ is a multi-purpose one.
It refers to the vanilla plant itself, as well as the flavour and scent that are associated with this plant’s seed pods and flowers.
Vanilla has a distinctly sweet, floral flavour and aroma. It can be found in everything from confectionary and candles to perfume, cigars and haute-cuisine.
But all of these myriad uses begin with the humble vanilla plant.
All natural vanilla is derived from the vanilla orchid.
This plant is native to Mexico and other areas of Central America. Over the centuries, vanilla’s popularity has boomed, and this humble orchid has been spread throughout the world.
But you won’t find this orchid in the windowsill of any home. They are notoriously difficult to cultivate — requiring a precise tropical climate with year-round warm temperatures and plenty of rain.
There are more than 35 000 species of orchid, but only vanilla can be eaten by humans. Each vanilla orchid blooms into a magnificent flower for only one day. If it is not pollinated, no seed pod will form. In Mexico, they are pollinated by a stingless black bee and a rare kind of hummingbird that evolved alongside the vanilla orchid. However, because the majority of vanilla is produced outside of Mexico in places where there are no natural pollinators, a time consuming and precise hand pollination technique is the only way to make sure that the seed pods form.
Like many orchids, vanilla is an epiphyte that wraps itself around a host tree (or man-made structure). It derives its nutrients and water from the air and not parasitically from the host plant. It takes a minimum of five years for a vanilla orchid to start flowering and producing seed pods. Guess you can’t rush perfection, huh?
The seed pods are the vanilla’s fruit. Long, tube-shaped “beans” or “pods” that house thousands of tiny black seeds, packed full of vanillin.
Vanillin is the real star of the show.
It is a flavour compound that gives vanilla its distinct taste. Vanillin can be found in many other types of plants (like cloves and tree bark) but vanilla has the highest concentration of this flavour compound.
The vanilla flavour and scent is used in everything from perfumes, ice cream, cigars, baked goods, air fresheners, candles and much more. People say that it has a soothing aroma and reminds them of their favourite memories from childhood.
As for the flavour, there’s a reason why vanilla is so highly prized by home cooks and Michelin star chefs alike — it’s at once a complex flavour and a simple one. You know immediately when you eat a vanilla flavoured food. Your taste buds light up when they touch this gift of nature, making it one of the world’s most popular flavours.
How can I use vanilla in my cooking and baking?
The fruit, pod or bean as discussed above, dried and cured to release the true depth of vanilla flavour. Cut open the bean and scrape out the seeds.
Vanilla beans in alcohol. As simple as that. Watch out for extra ingredients like corn syrup and find our recipe to make your own at home below.
Vanilla extract and seeds, ground into a smooth paste. Perfect for when you want to avoid extra liquid in your recipes. Particularly good for baking.
Dried vanilla extract and cornstarch. This dry powder is used when you don’t want to add vanilla’s rich brown colour to your food.
What’s the difference between natural and synthetic vanilla?
Natural vanilla is real vanilla. It’s extracted from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid.
Synthetic vanilla, on the other hand, is man-made.
This is the sickly sweet, cheap vanilla concentrate that you find in your local baking aisle.
Anything called “vanilla flavour” doesn’t actually contain vanilla at all.
We clever humans have figured out how to make vanilla cheaper by synthesising and extracting the vanillin flavour compound from other sources including eugenol (clove oil), waste paper pulp, coal tar and coumarin from the tonka bean.
While these other sources may have vanillin, they lack the 170+ other flavour compounds found in natural vanilla that creates its rich and complex taste.
Art is a great metaphor for the difference between natural and synthetic vanilla. Think of some of the most famous pieces of all time — Monet’s Lillys, Van Gogh’s starry night, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
These contain a myriad of colours and textures that meld together to create a vision of beauty that appeals to the eye, mind, heart, and soul.
These masterworks are natural vanilla. Many flavours and textures melding into one special taste, unique to each individual plant.
Synthetic vanilla is more like a can of paint. It is one colour, mass-produced in large quantities, that anyone can buy. Sure, it will get the job done, but it’s one-dimensional – lacking the complexity that high-quality natural vanilla, like ours, is famous for.
What are the different types of vanilla?
There are two main types of vanilla — Mexican vanilla (Vanilla Planifolia) and Tahitian vanilla (Vanilla Tahitensis).
Mexican vanilla is the more common type of vanilla. Even though it is native to Mexico and other parts of Central America, it is commonly called Bourbon or flat-leaved vanilla and is mostly grown in Madagascar.
Its Tahitian cousin (the kind we sell here at Native Vanilla) is mainly grown in Papua New Guinea and boasts a far more subtle flavour, tempering the distinct vanilla flavour with fruity, floral notes that are preferred by pastry chefs and true culinary connoisseurs the world over.
Why is vanilla so expensive?
Vanilla is the most expensive spice, just after saffron. It has consistently been the world’s most popular spice since it came to the west in the 16th century. The price of vanilla is nearing that of gold and has already surpassed the price of silver. But why is vanilla so expensive and why are prices rising?
The answer to these questions is rather complicated since the price is driven by various factors. However, the main reason for vanilla’s high price tag is because it is so difficult to grow.
Vanilla comes from the only fruit-producing orchid in the world, which is very sensitive and needs the perfect conditions to grow, including high humidity, bright indirect sunlight and plenty of water. This is why they are naturally found in tropical regions such as Indonesia and Madagascar.
Ensuring the perfect growing environment is only half the battle. The vines can take up to five years to mature and then their flowers only bloom for a single day of the year. This means that pollination has to take place in this small time frame. Another issue is that pollination often has to be carried out by human intervention. This is in cases where the vanilla plant is grown outside of its native homeland and therefore doesn’t have the right bees and birds to pollinate it. The process involves inserting a toothpick sized instrument into the flower and moving the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma.
After pollination, the beans take up to 9 months to grow. They are then carefully handpicked and moved through the vital curing process in which they are blanched in hot water, sweated and dried out. But this is still not the final stage. The vanilla pods still need a few months to cure unless modern technologies are applied that can reduce this time to as little as three weeks.
As you can tell the process is incredibly time-consuming and labour intensive but as the old adage goes - the best things in life are worth waiting for - and judging by the price, popularity and widespread use of this spice, we would say most people agree.
Just like all other commodities, the price of vanilla is directly affected by the vanilla market, which has proven extremely volatile over the years and is impacted by natural and man-made trends across the vanilla bean lifecycle.
There was a resurgence in the vanilla market around 2011–2015 when companies such as Nestle and Kellogs started moving away from artificial flavourings and opting instead to use natural ingredients in their products. Since then the demand for vanilla has continued to grow, but production has not been able to keep up, meaning that demand is outweighing production.
Not only is the plant difficult to grow but vanilla farmers also have to contend with mother nature and vanilla bean thieves. Over the past fifteen years, climate change has altered weather events and cyclones have become more frequent and intense, with farmers now running the risk of their crops being destroyed in one fell swoop. This was the case when Madagascar (the world's largest Bourbon vanilla producer) failed to meet crop expectations because of Cyclone Enawo in March 2017 and the severe drought that followed.
Vanilla farmers also have to fight off the increasing theft of vanilla beans and come up with new and inventive strategies to prevent it, such as sleeping in their plantations or harvesting the beans before they are ripe. Applying these strategies often impacts the beans quality or price tag. For example: harvesting the beans before they are fully ripe negatively impacts the quality of the vanilla, specifically in terms of the rich, delicious flavour that only amplifies in the final months.
Why is some vanilla more expensive than others?
Vanilla prices vary based on the type of vanilla you purchase specifically its grade and origin.
There is no ‘best’ type of vanilla bean, since different kinds are preferred for their different tastes, aromas and uses. However, there is definitely a distinction that can be made in terms of vanilla bean quality.
The quality of a vanilla bean is determined by its condition, moisture content and size. Moisture content is the most important characteristic and the one that sets a Grade A, ‘Gourmet grade’ bean apart from the rest. Grade A beans have high moisture content which makes them look full and plump. They are moist to the touch and leave an oily residue on your fingers. They are soft and supple and grow to around 6 inches/15cm in length.
Grade B vanilla beans are also known as ‘extraction grade’. These are more rigid, have a cracked, dry appearance and are smaller in size. They are a red-brown colour and do not leave an oily residue when touched. Sometimes these beans are cracked, bruised and sunburnt. These beans are used to make vanilla extract since they have a much lower moisture content and a more concentrated vanilla flavour. It might seem counterintuitive that Grade A vanilla beans are reserved for cooking if they are more diluted, but the high moisture content in Grade A beans actually allows it to give off its flavour more quickly.
Where the vanilla bean is grown has an effect on its flavour as well as its price.
Planifolia and Tahitensis are the two types of vanilla beans.
Planifolia is also known as Madagascan bourbon since most vanilla planifolia comes from the region of Madagascar previously called Bourbon and now referred to as Reunion.
This kind of vanilla is also grown in other countries too such as Mexico, Uganda, India, and Indonesia. These beans are the most common and therefore come at a cheaper price point. Planifolia beans give off that vanilla flavour that most people know and love. These are typically what store-bought extracts are made from.
Tahitensis vanilla comes from Tahiti and is grown only in the warmer climates of Tahiti and Papua New Guinea.
Since far less of this type of vanilla is available, it is also more expensive. The flavour is also stronger and more impactful than planifolia. It has floral and fruity flavours and is often used to enhance the sweetness of food and beverages, thus allowing for less sugar to be used. Beans from Tahiti are preferred for their robust fruity flavours while those grown in Papua New Guinea are often used as an alternative.
Do you have a vanilla extract recipe for me?
Because vanilla is so expensive, some vanilla enthusiasts have taken to making their own homemade vanilla extract. While this is more time consuming, it is a fun activity and helps you save money.
The popularity of home-made vanilla making is evidenced by the hundreds of recipes, how-to’s and tutorials online.
Here is the most simple guide on making your own vanilla extract with some key tips.
The first and probably most important step is to source the best ingredients – vanilla beans and alcohol. The type of bean you choose will impact the depth of favour your extract ultimately provides, so choose wisely and ensure you buy from a trusted and reputable brand.
Grade B beans are typically used for vanilla extract, but Grade A beans work just as well
The type of alcohol you use isn't quite as important as long as it’s around 70 - 80 proof/ 35 - 40% alcohol. Most people prefer using vodka because it has the most neutral flavour but you could just as easily use brandy, bourbon or rum.
The next step is to take 5 - 6 beans and split them down the middle using a sharp knife. Then place the beans into 1 cup/8 ounces of your chosen alcohol. The more beans you add, the richer the vanilla flavouring you’ll get.
Use a bottle with a good seal because you will need to leave the mixture in a cool, dark place to mature for a minimum of 2 months. Don’t forget to give it an occasional shake. The longer you leave it to infuse the stronger the flavour will be. Give it taste once you see the alcohol turn a deep amber colour and let your tastebuds decide if it’s ready to go. You can continue to add more alcohol to the bottle as you use it, making your vanilla extract last longer. Or you can use it all in one go, providing you strain the beans and sediment out first.