Vanilla: What Makes a Better Bean?
cream to cake to yoghurt, the flavor of vanilla
surrounds us. Often, manufacturers tout “real
vanilla” and “natural vanilla
flavoring” on their packages to lure
us into buying their products. But what is “real
vanilla,” and why is it so expensive?
And why is it that vanilla flavoring costs
half as much as vanilla extract? The answer
lies in the vanilla bean itself. With a little
information, any consumer can become readily
informed on the production, testing, and
quality of vanilla beans and their products.
Does Vanilla Cost So Much?
and attributes of vanilla owe themselves
to a multitude of factors. From growing location,
to curing procedures, to vanillin content,
each cured vanilla bean (or “pod”)
is graded on a long list of indicators that
help separate quality vanilla products from
inferior ones. From beginning to end, science
and art must work in unison to create quality
vanilla beans. By the end of the process,
beans have vanillin contents of anywhere
from 1.4%- 2.8%--with the higher-quality
beans averaging 2% and above. These beans
are then used to create vanilla “extracts”.
only flavoring regulated by the Food and
Drug Administration, vanilla extracts are
sold in strictly regulated strengths, or “folds.” A
fold of vanilla is the extractive matter
of 13.35 ounces of beans at no more than
25% moisture content. A two-fold pure vanilla
extract should contain the extractives of
26.7 ounces, and so on. Anything less than
these standards is labeled as either pure
vanilla flavor or vanilla flavoring. In a
nutshell, if the bottle doesn’t say “vanilla
extract,” then you aren’t getting
Artificial Vanilla is Cheaper
vanillin, usually referred to as “artificial
vanilla,” often packs a lot of vanilla
flavoring for a much smaller price. Usually,
artificial vanilla is derived from by-products
of the paper or petro-chemical industries.
It is generally three times as strong as
vanilla extract, and is chemically processed
from guaiacol, a coal tar derivative. Later,
artificial caramel coloring and sometimes
sweeteners are added.
vanillin contains over 290 compounds that
add to its flavor, with natural vanillin
being just ONE of them. Ever wonder why Tahitian
vanilla has such a wonderful fruity flavor?
High levels of a compound called “heliotropin” are
responsible. Synthetic vanilla is really
just vanillin, and nothing else. So, if you
buy artificial vanilla, you’ll miss
out on the many wonderful undertones of fragrance
and flavor that make vanilla such a complex—and
vanilla sometimes becomes unstable and loses
flavor when exposed to high temperatures
and a variety of differing ingredients. As
a result, baked and cooked products may lack
any real vanilla flavor once finished.
vanilla—with its added sweeteners—sometimes
does not taste like vanilla at all. While
authentic vanilla may have sweet characteristics,
it is not a sweet spice. Added sweeteners
produce a vanilla flavor that is simply inaccurate.
vanilla may be a cheaper alternative, it
simply cannot compare to the many attributes
of pure vanilla. However, even when buying
real vanilla and vanilla beans, one must
always be conscious of quality—and
what determines it.
beans are always tested for quality. The
market demands it and growers welcome it
as a chance to prove themselves. But what
does that really mean? What exactly differentiates
a higher-quality vanilla bean from a lower-quality
vanilla bean? The easiest characteristics
to assess are those that involve your own
a close relationship between these characteristics
and the aroma/flavor quality. A larger, more
supple, bean tends to be more aromatic and
beans are plump, dark brown to black in color, “oily” in
appearance, and generally free from blemishes.
Some beans with high vanillin content will
develop a “frost” on the outside.
While this is often a positive sign, frost
on beans is not necessarily an indicator
of higher quality. In addition, higher quality
beans with an “oily” appearance
that gives off heavy fragrance tends to be
vanilla requires the melding of science and
art, scientific testing is the only way to
guarantee that the vanilla you purchase is
worth your hard-earned money. Primarily,
vanilla beans are tested for moisture and
content of high-grade vanilla beans is high
(around 30-40%). However, lower grade vanilla
beans may contain as little as 10% moisture.
content of vanilla beans is dependent on
many factors. Growing regions, curing processes,
and genetic makeup of the actual bean each
play a factor in determining the percentage
of vanillin each bean contains. Bear in mind,
however, that higher vanillin content—while
a sign of high quality—does not necessarily
indicate a better tasting bean. Curing processes
not only help vanillin develop in beans (there
is no vanillin present when beans are first
harvested), but they also help develop the
overall flavor. Average vanillin content
in beans by region is:
New Guinea 1.80%
beans are tested for vanilla and moisture
content, other chemicals—such as heliotropin
(found in “fruitier” vanillas)
or piperonal—also contribute dramatically
to the overall flavor and quality of vanilla
beans. Simply put, a lower level of vanillin
does not necessarily mean a lower quality
Tahitian vanilla beans tend to have a lower
vanillin-content. However, their high levels
of heliotropin produce a flavor that is valued
by chefs worldwide.
Does Vanilla Come From?
in the graph above, vanilla beans are grown
in a variety of locations. However, the most
well known locations are Mexico, Madagascar,
Indonesia, and Tahiti. Each of these locations
produces beans that are unique in quality
vanilla, once very popular, is often criticized
for having less “body” than
other vanillas. However, it enjoys popularity
the world over, and is known for its creamy,
vanilla, produced in Madagascar, has a
deeper “body” than Mexican
vanilla, but also lower aroma as a result
of lower heliotropin levels. Its creamy
and woody flavor makes it a favorite among
vanilla is sometimes comparable to Bourbon
vanilla, and has a deep, rich flavor with
woody and straw-like undertones.
vanilla is used quite frequently as a fragrance,
since it has such a strong, fruity flavor
and aroma. With its high heliotropin content,
Tahitian vanilla has a lower vanilla content,
and thus a milder flavor.
New Guinea (PNG) vanilla is relatively
very low in vanillin content, as farmers
have yet to master the curing process.
Therefore, PNG vanilla is typically sold
through the Indonesian market, where it
is cured. Like Tahitian vanilla, PNG vanilla
has a strong fruity taste, with undertones
of cherries and licorice.
vanilla, a newcomer to the vanilla market,
is comparable to Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar
with its rich, flavorful undertones.
you know what makes a better bean. You understand
that appearance, fragrance, and chemical
components (moisture and vanillin content)
all work in unison to create a unique and
high-quality bean. But what about curing?
What role does curing play in the evolution
of the vanilla bean from a green, vanillin-free
pod to a dark-brown, vanillin-rich spice?
curing helps vanilla beans develop their
vanillin-content. Green (unripe) vanilla
beans have no distinctive vanilla smell or
taste, as they have no vanillin. Ripe fruits
do contain vanillin, but they leak and cannot
be used. Thus, curing vanilla beans assists
in the production of vanillin in vanilla
beans. In addition, curing also helps vanilla
beans develop a richer, more complex flavor.
the exact curing process of vanilla beans
varies by region, each vanilla bean develops
its own unique characteristics based on the
same basic steps.
this phase, the bean is exposed to high heat
to stop vegetative growth—or to “kill” the
bean. Once killing is achieved, the bean
will begin to turn brown.
to prevent fermentation, the temperature
of the killed beans is elevated and the bean
is given an initial “drying.”
for drying vary by location. In some places,
the beans are sun-dried, while other locations
opt to use fire. Whatever the case, the beans
are left to dry until they diminish to around
1/3 of their original weight.
the final, and longest, stage, beans are
placed in closed boxes for a period of three
months to develop their full flavor, vanillin
content, and aroma.
Beans Do I Buy?
what determines the quality of vanilla beans
is the first step. Understanding how and
why different beans have different and unique
flavors is next. Now it’s time to buy.
But where do you start?
start by picking high-quality beans (as described).
Next, choose beans based on their flavor
characteristics. Looking for a rich, creamy
vanilla? Bourbon vanilla is always a good
choice. Want something light and fruity?
that, no matter what beans you buy—the
flavor, characteristics, and quality are
always being monitored and tested to ensure
your satisfaction. Science and art have created
many beans to choose from. It’s up
to you to decide which one!