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How To Tell The Difference Between The Various Types of Vanilla Beans

Classifying different types of vanilla beans can mean different things to different people. There are, in fact, a myriad of ways to categorize vanilla beans. We can break them down into species, and place of origin, and grades. Let’s take a look at the most common types of vanilla beans and examine what makes them unique from one another.

Species of Vanilla Beans

While in the grand scheme of things there are many types of vanilla beans, there are only two main species of vanilla orchid cultivated for commercial vanilla production.

Vanilla Planifolia

Vanilla Planifolia is the most common species of the vanilla orchid. It is the first species of vanilla orchid— the plant that all vanilla roots can be traced back to. The pods host vanilla caviar emitting a rich, familiar vanilla flavor and aroma. It is the more potent vanilla variety and easily infuses a deep, earthy, vanillin flavor into any dish.

Vanilla Tahitensis

Vanilla Tahitensis is a very close cousin of Planifolia. It is named after the island upon which it’s commercial cultivation began, though its origin is debated among botanists and vanilla enthusiasts.

Some claim it was intentional hybridization, others believe it was a natural evolution, and there are scientific research studies that suggest it was a bit of both—a natural hybridization between Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Odorata, which occurred in Maya cacao forests.

Regardless of how Vanilla Tahitensis came to be, pastry chefs all over the world would be at a loss without it. It is prized for its subtle sweetness and unmatched floral properties. Vanilla Tahitensis is also more commonly found in fragrances, due to the floral aroma.

Types of Vanilla Beans, Based on Origin

Pretty simple, two types of vanilla bean species—one strong and earthy, the other subtle, floral, and sweet. But it gets more complicated because the vanilla orchid has been brought to tropical regions around the world and is now being cultivated in various growing regions and using a multitude of growing, harvesting, and curing methods—all of which contribute to varying flavor properties. Let’s take a look.

Mexican Vanilla Beans

All vanilla beans can actually be traced back to the Mexican Vanilla Planifolia. Today, Mexican vanilla beans are still primarily the Planifolia variety. They are the perfect addition or pairing for chocolate, full-bodied, smooth, and somewhat spicy.

Madagascar Vanilla Beans

Madagascar vanilla beans (beans in the center of the image) are commonly known as Bourbon vanilla beans because of the region in Madagascar in which they are derived. Since most Vanilla Planifolia comes from this region, Bourbon Vanilla is commonly used synonymously with the Planifolia species.

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They are quite often described as creamy and rich in vanillin flavor and are the most common type of vanilla bean found in commercial pure vanilla flavors. Bourbon vanilla beans are now cultivated in many regions beyond Madagascar.

Tahitian Vanilla Beans

Tahitian vanilla beans (bean on the far left in the image) are much shorter and plumper than their Bourbon cousin, and practically bursting with vanilla seeds. They are delicate and sweet with floral undertones and notes of red wine, peach, and cherry.

Ugandan Vanilla Beans

Though not nearly as common as the first three types of vanilla beans we mentioned, Ugandan vanilla beans (beans on the far right in the image) should not be overlooked when making a purchase decision for your culinary products. They land somewhere in between Mexican and Madagascar beans, with an intoxicating and buttery vanillin flavor and aroma reminiscent of chocolate and figs.

Papua New Guinea Vanilla Beans

Much like the Ugandan variety, Papua New Guinea (PNG)  vanilla beans are under-represented in the vanilla realm but are quickly gaining traction. Both Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Tahitensis are commonly grown in PNG, with the Bourbon variety contributing a well-balanced richness with buttery, caramel undertones, and the Tahitian variety emitting a dark yet subtle, oaky flavor with cherry undertones.

Indonesian Vanilla Beans

It’s wild to me that Indonesian vanilla beans are not spoken of more often. After all, Indonesia is the second largest producer of vanilla in the world, second only to Madagascar. The distinctive curing process used in Indonesia contributes a deep smoky flavor that holds up remarkably well in heat applications.

Grades of Vanilla Beans

There are two primary grades of vanilla beans, Grade A and Grade B. Though some people go as far as to further segment them into subgrades (grade A-1, A-2, etc…).

Grade A Vanilla Beans

Grade A vanilla beans are also known as gourmet vanilla beans or premium vanilla beans. They have a much higher moisture content than the grade B variety, which means the vanilla flavor will quickly infuse into a dish. Gourmet beans have an obvious oily sheen on the pods and are visibly perfect in form. They are the perfect choice for culinary projects that do not require a long infusion process.

Grade B Vanilla Beans

Grade B vanilla beans are often referred to as extract vanilla beans because they are primarily used for making vanilla extract. Extract grade vanilla beans will often have bruising, scarring, or tearing on the pod, varying lengths, and maybe even some scorching from the sun.

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These imperfections do not harm the integrity of the vanillin flavor but do make them less desirable by chefs around the world. They have approximately 10-15% less moisture content than gourmet vanilla beans, which means a more concentrated flavor, making them the perfect choice for extracts, simple syrups, and dishes that can withstand a longer infusion process.

While these lists are not absolutely inclusive of every type of vanilla bean, they do give insight into the primary beans found commercially. Our hope is that this article helps you understand how to tell the difference between the various types of vanilla beans and make an informed decision prior to buying vanilla beans for your next project! Here’s another article that can assist you in understanding what to look for when buying vanilla beans online.

What type of vanilla bean is best for extract?

When deciding which type of vanilla bean to buy for extract, you should consider how you intend on using the vanilla. As we mentioned above, Grade B (Extract) Vanilla Beans have a more concentrated flavor, but they are not as aromatic or visually appealing as a Grade A Vanilla Bean.

For this reason, we recommend that those new to making extract choose a Grade A Vanilla Bean. These beans will produce a vanilla extract with enhanced flavor and aroma that is still very much usable in all of your baking projects, but will also be better suited for cooking and baking applications than pure extract.

How to Store Vanilla Beans?

If you are not going to use your beans right away, it is best to store vanilla beans in an airtight container at home. If you are not using the beans soon, they should be left out of direct sunlight or any source of heat. This helps prevent the aroma from escaping from the vanilla bean and losing its potency.

In addition, be sure that no exposure to light occurs when attempting to open a jar for the first time. This will keep your alpha hydroxy molecules intact and preserve them longer.

When storing your beans, be sure to keep them away from sources of heat and light. The aroma and flavor will quickly degrade when exposed to these things. Obviously, always be mindful of where you store your vanilla beans if you plan on making extracts or otherwise using your beans in a culinary recipe.

Where is Madagascar?

The island nation of Madagascar lies off the southeastern coast of Africa, near the Mozambique coastline in South East Africa. It is one of two islands in the world that are classified as an island nation, and is the fifth largest island in the world.

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What’s the difference between Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla beans?

Tahitian beans are the most popular variety of vanilla bean in the world. Madagascar beans are the second most popular, and both types of vanilla beans are grown in Madagascar. The main difference between the two is that Tahitian beans come from plants that have been grown on the islands for more than 60 years, whereas Madagascar beans are generally newer to be growing on this island.

Is there a difference in vanilla beans?

Vanilla beans come from the orchid vanilla plant. The genus of Vanilla, Vanilla planifolia, is native to the tropical regions of South America (Ecuador and Venezuela). In addition to these two species, there are four other species of plants with which the vanilla bean is related. However all of these four have been bred and cross-bred since the beginning of their cultivation in their respective countries.

Which is better Grade A or Grade B vanilla beans?

Grade A vanilla beans are better for culinary applications as they have a higher concentration of vanillin, the chemical that is responsible for the you get the aromas of vanilla. On the other hand Grade B beans are generally better processors who use the extracts to make products without the need for any further processing, such as vanilla extract or candy.

Which is better Madagascar vs Tahitian Vanilla Beans?

The major difference between Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla beans is that Tahitian beans come from plants that have been grown on the islands for more than 60 years, whereas Madagascar beans are generally newer to be growing on this island. Both types of vanilla bean are referred to in their countries of origin.

Vanilla beans are the most aromatic spice used in the making of chocolate, confectionery, desserts, bakery and many other applications. Vanilla beans are a high grade vanilla seed or fruit that is planted in the orchid plant. The orchid plant produces pods with hard cover and seeds that give off flavor as well as aroma. Vanilla contains vanillin which gives it its characteristic sweet aftertaste and creamy taste. In addition to vanilla being a great flavoring agent for foods, it is also used for much more than food application. Cakes, ice cream, milk products, perfumes and soaps are just some of the uses of vanilla beans.

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