Vanilla: What Makes a Better Bean?
From ice 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.
Why Does Vanilla Cost So Much?
The quality 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”.
As the 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 real vanilla.
Why Artificial Vanilla is Cheaper
Synthetic 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.
Natural 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 desirable—flavoring.
Artificial 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.
Artificial 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.
While artificial 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.
Vanilla 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 senses.
- Flexibility and Size
There is a close relationship between these characteristics and the aroma/flavor quality. A larger, more supple, bean tends to be more aromatic and flavorful.
High quality 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 rarely frost.
A bean that gives off heavy fragrance tends to be more flavorful.
While producing 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 vanillin content.
- Moisture Content
The moisture content of high-grade vanilla beans is high (around 30-40%). However, lower grade vanilla beans may contain as little as 10% moisture.
- Vanillin Content
Vanillin 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:
Sri Lanka 1.50%
Bourbon-type Vanilla 2.20%
Papua New Guinea 1.80%
While vanilla 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 of vanilla.
For example, 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.
Where Does Vanilla Come From?
As shown 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 and features.
- Mexican 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, sweet flavor.
- Bourbon 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 chefs.
- Indonesian vanilla is sometimes comparable to Bourbon vanilla, and has a deep, rich flavor with woody and straw-like undertones.
- Tahitian 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.
- Papua 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.
- Ugandan vanilla, a newcomer to the vanilla market, is comparable to Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar with its rich, flavorful undertones.
Okay, so 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?
Primarily, 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.
Although the exact curing process of vanilla beans varies by region, each vanilla bean develops its own unique characteristics based on the same basic steps.
- “Killing” or Wilting
During 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.
In order to prevent fermentation, the temperature of the killed beans is elevated and the bean is given an initial “drying.”
Methods 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.
During 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.
What Beans Do I Buy?
Knowing 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?
First, 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? Try Tahitian.
Just remember 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!--Renate Gaddy--