All About Vanilla

This post is … as promised… a result of my “vanilla investigation”… everything you need to know about vanilla but were afraid to ask… or didn’t know to ask… which … if you’re like me… is probably more the case.

So just what is vanilla? … a good place to start. Vanilla is a flavoring derived from Vanilla Orchids… yep… orchids.. those really pretty flowers your prom date bought you…. well .. probably not exactly what he bought you.. but an orchid nonetheless.


These vanilla orchids are indigenous to Mexico. The name comes from the Spanish word… vainilla, which means little pod. Up to the early 1800’s attempts at cultivating it outside of Mexico failed.

It wasn’t until 1837, that a botantist, Charles Francois Antoine Morren discovered the reason. It seems there are these bees that are local to Mexico that are needed to pollinate the vanilla orchid. Morren developed a method to artificially pollinate the vanilla orchid. Unfortunately, it was not financially feasible to do this.

It wasn’t until 1847 that a French slave living on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean discovered that the Vanilla Orchid could be hand pollinated. This method of hand pollination allowed for global cultivation of the vanilla orchid.

Different Types of Vanilla Beans

I guess I never thought about it before… but it should have been a “no-brainer” that Vanilla Orchids cultivated in different parts of the world would taste differently…. but it wasn’t. It wasn’t until I used the vanilla extract that my Mother had sent me … did I realize it tasted differently than the ones I purchased locally. The one she sent me was produced in Mexico.

After all… wines made with the same variety of grapes cultivated in different parts of the world will have “different layers” of flavor … the plants “absorb” different minerals from the soil and atmosphere… and climate will also influence how something will taste… so it stands to reason that vanilla from different parts of the world will taste slightly different.

I decided to investigate further and was surprised to find quite the list of varieties of vanilla beans available. I will briefly list what they are and a description that I got from For information, see their website.

Mexican Vanilla Bean - they are very dark brown/black. The flavor of these beans is creamy, smooth, sweet and spicy with an intense, rich and spicy scent.

Madagascar Vanilla Bean – as the name implies, they are from Madagascar, which is where about 60% of the world’s vanilla bean production is from. They are a blackish brown color and a strong rich vanilla scent. Extracts made from Madagascar beans are very common.

Bourbon Vanilla Bean – this bean is from Papua New Guinea, it’s black in color and it too, has a strong, rich vanilla aroma. These beans have a traditional vanilla flavor which is creamy, sweet, smooth and mellow. The name Bourbon has nothing to do with the alcohol Bourbon, but instead it is named for the Bourbon French kings that ruled the island of Réunion when the method of hand pollination was discovered.

Indian Vanilla Bean – these are from India, and are similar to Madagascar beans. India is fast emerging as a major vanilla producer. These beans have a strong, full, rich vanilla aroma. They have a sweet woodsy flavor.

Tahitian Vanilla Bean – these beans are from Papua, New Guinea. They are very dark brown and are often described as smelling like licorice, cherries or wine. The aroma is flowery and fruiting with a smooth flavor.

Tonga Vanilla Beans – this bean is from the Kingdom of Tonga in the south Pacific. They are brown in color and they have a strong full vanilla aroma. Some say similar to red wine.

These are a few of the main producers or vanilla beans to give you an idea of what’s out there and to give you a better understanding of what you are purchasing.

The bottom line, while all may be good beans, they are not the same. You will find, as I did, when I happened to try a different vanilla extract, the flavors are distinctly different, all basically a vanilla flavor but distinctly different.

Vanilla Bean Products

Vanilla Beans – you can purchase vanilla beans. They are available in supermarkets, usually by a major spice brand. They tend to be very expensive. You can find them far cheaper online.

I would recommend, although there are other sites selling them also. The beans a long and thin. Many recipes have the vanilla bean dropped into the sauce pan during cooking. An example would be when making pastry cream. The bean is removed after cooking.

You can slit the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out the tiny beans and put them directly into your food. The black specs sometimes found in vanilla ice cream are these tiny beans.

Vanilla Extract – is a solution containing the flavor compound vanillin. The solution is made up of alcohol and water. The US FDA sets the minimum standards for the extract at 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean per gallon.

Vanilla Paste – is pure vanilla made of vanilla beans. It matches vanilla extra in flavor strength and usage. You use it exactly as you would extract. Whatever the recipe calls for.. a teaspoon of extract equals a teaspoon of paste. The advantage of the paste is that it will give that black flecked look of vanilla beans to your food.

Purchasing Vanilla Beans

Vanilla beans are expensive in the supermarket. We recently looked and were shocked at the prices. I found better prices online at

Storing Vanilla Beans

According to the folks at, wrap the vanilla beans in wax paper or plastic wrap and store in an airtight glass container or Tupperware container. They recommend that you squeeze out as much air as possible to prevent them from drying out.

They should never be stored in a refrigerator, the refrigerator will dry them out.

Store them in a cool, dry place such as a pantry or basement.

They should be aired out every few weeks for about 15 minutes.

Properly stored vanilla beans can last up to 2 years but it is recommended you purchase them and use them within 6-9 months.

Dry Vanilla Beans

If your beans dry out, they can be rehydrated by soaking them in warm water or milk for several hours.

Moldy Looking Vanilla Beans

If your beans get a white, frosty look… this is most likely not mold. Vanilla beans can form crystals and they are edible. If you do suspect actual mold, though, throw them out.

For more information, please see

I hope this information has been helpful… and you enjoy eating vanilla as much as I do!

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