Indonesian Vanilla Beans
Everyone knows what a vanilla bean tastes like and smells like. Vanilla planifolia, the plant from which we derive many different types of vanilla including Indonesian, is known for its robust flavors and delicious depth. The orchid that gives us vanilla is difficult to grow, and even more difficult to pollinate, making vanilla a flavor we really have to work for as human beings. Whole vanilla beans are much more fragrant and brilliant tasting than extracts and they are much more lovely to look at than the wood pulp you will find many companies use to make artificial vanilla flavor. Vanilla nearly as expensive and labor intensive as saffron per pound, but despite this, the demand for real vanilla keeps farmers and their families in business. Many of these vanilla businesses are in fact generational, and the skills required to plant and grow vanilla are passed down within families.
- History of Indonesian Vanilla Beans
- Indonesian Vanilla Bean Cultivation
- Where is it from?
- What Are the Different Types of Vanilla Beans?
- Cooking with Indonesian Vanilla Beans
- Dried Vanilla Beans vs Fresh Vanilla Beans
- How Should I Store My Vanilla Beans?
- What Do Indonesian Vanilla Beans Taste Like?
- Substitutions and Conversions
- Read more
For many years, vanilla was a Mexican secret, known only to the native Totonac people. They were conquered by the Aztecs in the 15th century, and the Aztecs began to use vanilla too, and then finally when the Aztecs were conquered by Hernan Cortez did vanilla come to the rest of the world. However vanilla still grew exclusively in Mexico for nearly 300 years after Hernan Cortez brought the beans back to other parts of the world, simply because they wouldn’t grow there. The beans wouldn’t grow because the orchid plant that vanilla grows on requires a specific type of pollination that has mostly been exclusive to a specific bee in Mexico, the Melipona genus of bees. Melipona bees are stingless and harmless to humans but produce delicious honey and help pollinate the vanilla orchid.
It wasn’t until 1841 that vanilla bean growth was productive in other parts of the world, all thanks to a boy named Edmond living in Réunion. He was a slave, working on a plantation and he figured out how to hand pollinate the orchids so vanilla beans would grow. His slave master realized what this would do for vanilla trade and the global economy, so he freed Edmond and gave him the last name Albius. Despite his former master’s insistence that it was Edmond alone who figured this out, Edmond was never rewarded for his contributions and died in poverty. His memory survives today as a bronze statue erected in modern day Réunion.
Thomas Jefferson, America’s first foodie, was believed to have brought vanilla to the United States in the 1700s. His handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream can be found today in the Library of Congress! He developed this recipe himself while he was living in Paris. Today, the increased demand for vanilla products has simultaneously upped the production of artificial vanilla, but also upped the number of people turning to true vanilla for a natural, real vanilla flavor. The price of vanilla remains constantly in flux, sometimes edging up to over $600 per pound, due to supply and demand.
Indonesia is the second largest producer of vanilla beans, just behind Madagascar. Picking vanilla beans at just the right moment is crucial for procuring the most flavorful pods. They should be picked just before they turn yellow. Usually, vineyards that produce vanilla beans have their crops trellised, or aligned in rows on top of one another, so both the manual pollination and the harvest is quick and easy. This style of farming is convenient for such a time-sensitive crop.
The drying process for vanilla beans is extremely lengthy and is shrouded in quite a bit of mystery, as it is considered a trade secret and each family has their own specific way of curing the beans. Ost vanilla farmers today are generational, having come from a long line of people who were also vanilla farmers. The drying process includes a short blanching period that can happen no later than 3 days after the beans have been harvested, in 150 to 170 degree water, for a period of time that lasts anywhere from 10 seconds to 3 minutes. These blanching is usually done by the same person for the whole crop, as they can tell what each individual cluster of beans will need to be perfectly blanched by feel and experience alone. The blanching is where the beans will begin to develop their vanillin, and thus the vanilla flavor. Immediately after blanching, the beans are removed from the water and wrapped tightly in wool blankets. They are then stored in a dark, airtight container for up to two weeks and only removed from the container to have some exposure to the sun during periods of direct sunlight. Speed is crucial to this process, as the steam inside the blanket will continue to help the beans produce vanillin. Any cooling during this period of storage is likely to encourage mold. As the beans continue to dry out and develop their flavor, they will be unrolled during the day to get direct sunlight, only to be rolled up once again for overnight storage.
Finally, the actual drying process can begin, as the beans are still quite wet after sweating for so long. They are laid out in the open air and are given direct sunlight and then breaks in the shade, as too much sun will make the beans brittle. Workers will work on each individual bean and massage it to ensure moisture is being evenly evaporated off. Beans are also resorted regularly to ensure there is no bean getting too much sunlight. This will go on for about 3 weeks but can sometimes last for a month. The beans are then stored in boxes lined with wax paper and kept sealed away for about a month. They are often shipped during this month-long period to an international market. During their transportation, or at any point during or after the drying process, the beans may develop crystals on them. This is fine, as the crystals are just vanillin.
The entire process is quite labor intensive and requires a great deal of skill, which attributes to the price of the vanilla beans. Depending on where they are grown, the climate in which they are produced and cured, and the level of accuracy that the farmer has when picking the beans, each crop will have different flavor notes.
Our Indonesian Vanilla Beans are from Indonesia. They are mostly grown in South Java Bali, though they may be sourced across other parts of Indonesia, depending on crop yield.
As there are several different types of vanilla beans, but the types you may be most familiar with are likely Madagascar, Tahitian, and Mexican. Indonesian is less well-known but it is one of the more heavily produced vanillas. Every vanilla has a common ancestor- the original vanilla grown in Mexico and Central America.
Madagascar, Mexican, and Indonesian vanilla are all of the Vanilla planifolia variety. Madagascar beans are thin and taste rich, sweet, fruity, and creamy. The vanilla flavor is often the strongest in these beans. Mexican vanilla beans are difficult to come by because they are grown in areas that are plagued with bad weather, droughts, and less land being dedicated to growing the plant, all of which contribute to low yields of the crop. Mexican vanilla is a spicier, more woody type of vanilla. Indonesian vanilla is oft forgotten, though it is much fruitier and easier to come by than Madagascar or Mexican vanilla, being the second-most produced vanilla in the world. It has a flavor profile and an aroma that some people would describe as slightly floral. Tahitian vanilla comes from Vanilla tahitiensis. This vanilla is shorter and thicker than the planifolia varieties of vanilla, and has an aroma that is much more floral than vanilla-y.
Indonesian Vanilla Beans have a very distinct vanilla flavor, with some saying that there is a bit of a pruny flavor to these beans. As such, some cooks prefer to use these beans outside of the traditional vanilla applications. Try it with earthy dishes. Pairs nicely with honey, and dishes with fruit bases like cakes, jams, ginger snaps, biscotti, preserves, or jellies.
When using in combination with other spices, try Indonesian Vanilla Beans with cinnamon, allspice, cloves, cardamom, and chiles. Vanilla beans can be reused if you are using the whole pod. They have a lot of flavor, so depending on the recipe, they can be rinsed, patted dry, and used again and again until they are no longer flavorful. Of course, be mindful of how you are using the beans and adjust your expectations for the flavors there. If you use your vanilla bean to flavor a drink for example and let it steep for 10 minutes, you will have much more flavor leftover than if you were to step the bean for an hour in a sauce or something.
Use your Indonesian Vanilla Beans in conjunction with apples, figs, fish, ice cream, melons, peaches, pears, strawberries, coconut, lobster. You could also use your beans to make a homemade vanilla extract! If that’s not in your wheelhouse however, we do carry a delicious Organic Vanilla Extract.
Fresh vanilla beans have almost no flavor at all, and are not used in any applications whatsoever, whether they be food or product related. It is not until they are cured that their flavor and aroma express themselves. Farmers will earn less money for their fresh vanilla beans than the manufacturers will earn from their cured beans.
Vanilla beans need some air circulation to them and as such should be allowed to breathe every now and again. In between airing out the beans, store them in a cool, dry, dark place to discourage mold growth. As mentioned before, some vanilla beans will develop crystals. Don’t scrape off the crystals, they are made up of vanillin and have quite a bit of flavor to them, themselves! Crystals can sometimes appear whitish in color, leading some to discard their beans thinking this is mold. Keep a close eye on your beans and inspect thoroughly. Use your other senses as well- if you notice the beans don’t smell sweet or complex anymore and instead smell musky, you may have a moldy bean. If that’s the case, discard the bean.
Indonesian Vanilla Beans are renowned for their delicious, fruity flavor and scent. They are sweet, creamy, and taste strongly of vanilla.
You can substitute any vanilla bean for a different vanilla bean, even though they have slightly different flavor profiles. Most will have very similar results, but you can always experiment with what beans you have on hand to see if you can taste a discernable difference in the recipe you are making.