February 23, 2011

Vanilla is used so frequently in desserts it is easy to take them for granted. But there is a great deal behind this common flavoring.

Growing them takes patience and care. A member of the orchid family, the vine blooms once a year in the spring and must be hand pollinated within 12 hours of opening. When the beans are picked they look more like a green bean than the vanilla bean we would recognize in the store. After harvesting the beans are cured and dried, a labor intensive process that includes wrapping them in cloth to sweat, laying them in the sun to dry and placing them in air tight boxes. The time between harvesting and selling takes months.

Vanilla became a part of the American palate by a rather circuitous route. Cortez took vanilla to Spain from Mexico where it became popular throughout Europe. Thomas Jefferson brought it to the United States after one of his visits to France.

Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla beans. They are called Madagascar Bourbon beans as they grow on the Bourbon Islands off the east coast of Africa. The name comes from the French who ruled that area and has nothing to do with bourbon from Kentucky. Bourbon beans are smooth, sweet and mellow.  The other vanilla bean I like is Tahitian. Their production is smaller and comes from a different variety of orchid. The flavor is floral and perfumy.  Mexico also produces good beans and extract. Be careful when you travel there and see bargain vanilla. Mexico does not have the same quality restrictions on vanilla and if you don’t pay attention you can buy something that tastes pretty bad.

At work I buy Nielsen- Massey vanilla extract by the half gallon and use it in cookies and cakes but there are recipes where I prefer to use a vanilla bean. I like to infuse it in other ingredients or scrape out the seeds from the pod for their intense flavor and the speckled appearance they offer. 

I use Madagascar beans when I want the vanilla to be a background flavor and help draw out other flavors like chocolate or coffee. I also like to use them with citrus for it pairs nicely with the acidity of the fruit.

All vanilla beans are expensive but Tahitian beans even more so. I reserve them for recipes where vanilla is the main flavor such as an ice cream or a crème brulee.

A bean should be plump and supple. When you rub it between your fingers you should be able to feel the seeds inside.  Since vanilla beans aren’t cheap you want them to be the best possible quality when you open your wallet. Fortunately for me restaurant suppliers have good ones but that doesn’t help the retail buyer.

Too often beans in the spice rack in the grocery store are dry and brittle.  To spend almost $10 on one bean and be able to snap it in two like a twig is frustrating. Sealed inside a glass jar, it’s hard to tell the quality by just looking. Experience has taught me to purchase my beans other places.

Surprisingly I have found good beans at Costco. They came in a glass tube. You can also find beans on line. The Vanilla Queen at www.vanilla.com sells good beans as does www.beanilla.com.

Here’s a recipe for vanilla ice cream. All you need is the chocolate and caramel sauces.

Vanilla Ice Cream 

6 large egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cup whole milk

2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream

1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise with the insides scraped out

To make the vanilla ice cream: In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 1/4 cup sugar, and salt in a bowl. Combine the milk, cream, vanilla bean and the remaining 1/4 cup of the sugar in a heavy bottomed saucepot. Over medium heat, heat the milk and cream until hot. Slowly pour the liquid into the egg and sugar mixture, whisking it together as you pour. (To keep the bowl with the eggs and sugar from spinning while you pour in the cream and whisk, place it on a towel.)

Return the cream and milk mixture back to the saucepot. Over medium low heat, cook, stirring continually with a heat resistant rubber or wooden spatula, until the custard reaches 175 degrees.

Strain the custard into a clean bowl and cool over an ice bath until at least room temperature. (Rinse off the vanilla bean and air dry it. Put it in your sugar container to flavor your sugar.) Refrigerate the custard for at least 4 hours or up to 2 days. Freeze according to ice cream manufacturer’s instructions. Place in the freezer until scoopable, at least one hour.


  1. I love baking with vanilla. We use only the best, and it makes a big difference. We currently have in our cupboard extract, beans and paste. And I know for a fact your ice cream recipe is fantastic!

  2. The different types of vanilla are interesting. I was surprised how they vary when I first learned about them and tried each one. This blog is a great primer on them!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: