Mexican Vanilla Beans
Unless you're a vanilla connoisseur, you may not even realize that there is more than one type of vanilla bean. Three dominate the food world- the Madagascar vanilla bean, the Tahitian vanilla beans, and the Mexican Vanilla bean. The scientific name for the Mexican vanilla bean is Vanilla planifolia. This type of vanilla is thought in some circles to be the best vanilla, since it is the place of origin for the plant and thus has the most genetic diversity.
The word vanilla comes from a Spanish word "vaina" that translates to "little pod." This plant, from the orchid family, was first cultivated by the Mesoamerican people in the region that is now Mexico.
- History of Mexican Vanilla Beans
- Mexican Vanilla Bean Cultivation
- Types of Vanilla Beans
- Cooking with Mexican Vanilla Beans
- Can You Grind Vanilla Beans?
- Dried vs Fresh
- What Do Mexican Vanilla Beans Taste Like?
- How Do I Properly Store Vanilla Beans?
- Substitutions and Conversions
- Can I Substitute Vanilla Extract for Vanilla Beans?
- Read More
Cultivated first by the Totonacs, a group indigenous to what is now Mexico, the vanilla orchid became a popular ingredient quickly after its discovery. The Aztecs are credited for the popularity of vanilla, using it in a variety of drinks including chocolatl, an early version of hot chocolate. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and took their land, they quickly inherited the culture's food preferences, adopting both vanilla beans and cacao nibs into their diets. Cortez, a famous explorer of the world outside of Spain, is credited as being the first person to bring the plant back to Europe where the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, fell in love. She wanted the beans grown in England, but early attempts were unsuccessful.
These successful attempts marred the landscape of vanilla bean growing for many years until a slave boy living in the French colony Réunion learned how to hand pollinate the flowers in the year 1841. Before this, the vanilla flowers would grow but beans would not come after the flowers died off and botanists couldn't figure out why or how to pollinate the flowers. Vanilla spread across the world then, with French plantations popping up across Madagascar in the 1890s. This boy, named Edmond, was 12 years old when he solved the mystery of the vanilla bean. His master recognized immediately what he had done for the colony and the vanilla industry and freed him. Edmond took the last name Albius and his master advocated for him to be rewarded for his contributions until his death. Edmond died without recognition during his time, and while that is an upsetting and inexcusable fact, today we recognize him as an important part of the vanilla industry. A statue commemorating him stands in modern day Réunion.
Vanilla made it to America in the 1700s, when Thomas Jefferson brought his recipe for vanilla ice cream back with him from a trip to Paris. Today, it is one of the most popular flavors and aromas across the United States. Despite a growing demand for vanilla, the production of vanilla beans has fallen over time as cheaper alternative and imitation vanillas are created. This drives up the price of real vanilla, since less time and resources are dedicated to growing the real thing.
When vanilla beans were first discovered, they were pollinated exclusively by Melipona bees and a species of hummingbird that is found only in this part of Central America. While the Melipona bees pollinate the vanilla orchid intentionally, the hummingbirds do so unintentionally in search of nectar from the flowers. When hand pollination was discovered, it made for cultivation of the vanilla bean outside of Mexico possible. The vanilla orchid blooms only for a few hours, so the flowers must be pollinated quickly. If it is not pollinated in the time frame that it is open, it will die and fall off the plant and no vanilla beans will grow.
When grown commercially, the vines are pruned and shaped to keep them at an accessible height for workers to deal with, since the vanilla bean requires a very hands-on growing, pollinating, and harvesting process. An individual vine can easily produce a thousand flowers, that when pollinated turn into green, odorless and flavorless vanilla beans that measure 8"-12" long. The beans do not reach their full flavor potential until they have been through a drying process.
The drying process is actually a combination of a "drying" and then "sweating" the beans. Vanilla beans are dried in the day time in the sun and then at night they are wrapped in blankets and tucked away so they can "sweat." This process lasts weeks to months, until the beans are dark brown in color and have developed a crystalline substance called "frost" on them. This frost is what gives the beans their scent and flavor. The beans are then aged for up to two years to unleash their full flavor potential.
Vanilla beans sizes may vary every year due to environmental factors, leading the beans to be smaller or larger. Different moisture contents of the air during a specific growing season is one of the factors that determines what size the beans will be. Typically you will get about 64 beans per every 8 ounces of Mexican Vanilla Beans, but this number may be larger or smaller, depending on what the crop is like and how large the beans are. When purchasing vanilla beans by weight, you can be assured that the weight you purchase is the weight you will receive.
Vanilla grown outside of Mexico, like further South, are not considered Mexican vanilla beans. For example, vanilla beans grown in Guatemala would be called "Guatemalan Vanilla Beans," but they are not considered one of the main vanilla beans in the global vanilla trade, and are thus largely reduced to "Mexican Vanilla Beans in manufacturing.
Our Mexican Vanilla Beans are grown in Mexico.
The three types of vanilla beans are Mexican, Madagascar, and Tahitian. Each type of vanilla has different flavors, and while the differences may be subtle, they are noticeable enough that many chefs have a favorite type of vanilla bean.
The Tahitian vanilla bean is floral and fruity, from the Vanilla tahitiensis plant. This vanilla bean has a slight anise flavor to it, making it perfect for sweets especially.
Madagascar and Mexican vanilla have similar flavor profiles and both can be described as creamy, with that classic vanilla flavor we all know and love so much. Mexican vanilla beans have a more mellow, smooth scent than Madagascar vanilla beans. They both come from Vanilla planifolia. Mexican vanilla beans are thicker than the other two varieties. Madagascar vanilla beans are also called bourbon vanilla beans. Today, 70%-80% of the world's vanilla is of the Madagascar or Bourbon variety.
When cooking with a vanilla bean, you can either use the whole bean or you can split the bean and use the seeds inside. "How do I remove the seeds from a vanilla bean?" is a common question with an easy answer. Split the pod lengthwise, open and flatten the bean, and then scrape the seeds out from the top of the seed to the bottom using the edge of a knife.
Mexican vanilla beans are excellent for baked goods, cheesecakes, chocolate desserts, custards, ice cream, and sweet breads. You can save your vanilla beans if you use them in soups, stews, or sauces and use them again. Simply rise them off, pat them dry, and put them away until you need them again. These beans can be used several times before they lose flavor. If you find that you've used your vanilla beans up and they aren't yielding as much flavor as they used to, you can easily grind them up and give them a new life. Vanilla powder can be used in all the same ways that vanilla beans are used. Add some to your morning coffee or a bowl of oatmeal for a gentle flavor boost.
Yes, you can grind vanilla beans. This will produce a vanilla powder that can be used in various ways to impart vanilla flavor in your cooking.
Vanilla beans are never used in their green form. They don't have that delicious vanilla scent or flavor until after they have been dried and aged.
Mexican vanilla beans have a creamy, spicy vanilla flavor. They have a woodsier aroma than other vanilla beans.
Vanilla beans are susceptible to mold, but this is especially the case when they are stored in the fridge. Vanilla beans should never be stored in the fridge or freezer.
Instead, store your vanilla beans in a cool, dry place that has good air circulation. This will discourage mold from forming. When stored in wet or even airtight places, vanilla beans may form a vanilla specific mold growth.
Sometimes, vanilla crystals are mistaken for mold. Look closely at your vanilla beans! If there are crystals on the beans this is a sign of a high-quality bean, not mold! This mold looks dull and whitish, and the crystals will be shiny. If you do discover a moldy bean, discard it immediately and watch your beans for any possibly affected beans. This type of mold spreads rapidly but can be prevented by keeping your beans aired out in a dark space. When exposed to too much light, beans that are airing out can become dry. If you have dried out beans they can be ground up or used to make vanilla extract.
When stored properly, vanilla beans will remain flavorful for a year. Try to buy an amount of beans that you will use up in 6 to 8 months however, for the absolute best flavor.
Vanilla beans can be used interchangeably with only very subtle flavor differences. Each vanilla bean has strengths and weaknesses.
Yes, you can substitute extract for the real thing or vice versa. One vanilla bean is equal to 1 tbsp. of extract.