Is there a flavor difference between types of vanilla beans?

Good question, reader Naomi. There definitely is, though unless you’ve got a truly stellar ingredient shop nearby, you pretty much have to take what you can get, bean-wise. Most larger grocery stores have stopped selling vanilla beans because so few people buy them. The small boutique shops here in Louisville generally stock only one type and that’s typically Bourbon — also known as “Madagascar” — vanilla from Nielsen-Massey. They’re the most common retail brand.

Madagascar vanilla is considered by many to be the “definitive” vanilla, though a lot of that is probably just good marketing on the part of Nielsen-Massey. It seems true to me that Madagascar vanilla is stronger and more aromatic, it gives off more exotic “high notes” as it were. That’s made it the go-to vanilla bean for pastry pros for decades. However in 2000 a typhoon all but wiped out vanilla crops in Madagascar and the nearby vanilla-producing islands of Réunion and Comoros. That caused prices to spike. It also gave pastry makers cause to take another look at the two other major vanillas: Mexican and Tahitian.

It’s said that Mexican vanilla has a deeper, smoother, truer vanilla flavor (it is the place, after all, where vanilla originated). Tahitian is thought by many to be very fruity. True vanilla enthusiasts can tell the differences between those and Madagascar vanilla, very discerning palates might even be able to pick up differences between Madagascar, Mexican, Tahitian and others like New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Tonga, Mauritius, Uganda, Réunion, Comoros, etc.. All that is far beyond my ability, (and, frankly, my interest).

Generally if I can find a real vanilla bean — one that’s fresh, meaning plump, glossy and pliable — I’m happy. And while it’s true that I do use extracts (often imitation) most of the time in the kitchen, I’ll always use a real vanilla bean in a custard or a cream, where the subtle perfumes sing.

10 thoughts on “Is there a flavor difference between types of vanilla beans?”

  1. Joe,

    You can get very good quality vanilla beans at much better prices by purchasing online. These are much better than anything I have ever seen at a store. I purchased 1 pound of extract grade beans and have made a gallon of extract at home. It takes a while but my extract is now superior to any purchased extract I have used.
    With my purchase I received some extra prime grade Madagascar and Tahitian beans for free.

  2. A few years ago Penzey’s opened up here and they always have samples out, its a revelation!

    They stock 3 different varieties of cinnamon for instance. The Vietnamese one is the sweetest and sharpest with an almost candy like flavor. The Cylon one is darker and richer, more like what you get in the store and the Chinese is hotter. Each has its uses – its fun to play with them.

    1. There’s a Penzey’s here now but I rarely remember to go there! I should do a little shopping and see what they have in the way of vanilla!

      – J

  3. I’m no expert on vanilla -just enjoyer – but I do know that Tonga is now producing really good quality vanilla that we can buy here in NZ – great for us and great little enterprise for Tonga .

  4. Was that me? I ordered some beans from online and attempted to make my own flavoring. It’s not bad but I’ve decided I’m okay with store-bought. Do like having beans for other stuff though, like vanilla ice-cream.

    1. That’s a different Naomi, Naomi. 😉

      I seem to recall you were going to try something like that the last time we talked vanilla. So the experiment was sorta so-so, eh? Sorry to hear that!

      – Joe

  5. Penzey’s is great – you should definitely check it out! The one near me has little sample jars for everything, so you can see what everything actually smells and tastes like. My eyes were really opened by the differences in the cinnamons they have (I am now in love with Vietnamese cinnamon). And we won’t even _start_ on all the varieties of peppers…

    They also sell on-line, for those not fortunate enough to have a local outlet.

    1. Hi Mouse!

      Ain’t it the truth? Really good, fresh, undiluted spices are a true eye-opener. We have one here in Louisville now and I love it…when I can get there!

      Thanks for the comment,

      – Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *