What is a vanilla bean?
A fruit from an orchid flower grown in tropical climates, Vanilla is the second most labour intense crop after Saffron. Each flower of the orchid must be hand pollinated to produce a ‘fruit’ which is then picked and cured, a process that takes 9-12 months. The vanilla then resembles more of a bean hence the term, ‘vanilla bean’.
There are two main species of vanilla bean, Vanilla tahitensis and Vanilla planifolia, whose common terms are often confused. Vanilla planifolia is often referred to as bourbon vanilla or Madagascan vanilla, as it is cured using the bourbon method and the species that is grown in Madagascar. For many years Madagascar was thought of as the premier grower of vanilla, however many countries have now perfected the growing and curing of Vanilla. Vanilla tahitensis can also be cured using the bourbon method. Hence identifying Vanilla planifolia as ‘bourbon vanilla’ is inaccurate, as it could also be describing vanilla tahitensis.
Scientific name: Vanilla tahitensis
Common name: Tahitian Vanilla
Vanilla tahitensis is a hybrid of V.planifolia and V.odorata, cultivated by the Maya. It was first brought to Tahiti in the 19th Century, which is where its name originates.
V. tahitensis is more highly prized for its sweet fruity aroma, and is usually shorter, plumper and oilier than V.planifolia.
Scientific name: Vanilla planifolia
Common name: Vanilla, Bourbon Vanilla, Madagascan Vanilla
Vanilla is thought to of originated in Guatemala and was first used by the Maya to spice chocolate in the 14th Century.
The aroma of V.planifolia is a traditional vanilla flavor. V. planifolia is more readily available throughout the world and has a higher vanillin content to V.tahitensis, it is also thinner and slightly woodier.
Vanilla is graded based on its appearance, its pliability, oiliness, and length.
Beans that are over 15cm long, black or dark brown in colour, have a moisture content of 30% or more, and are pliable and oily are considered Grade A Vanilla Beans or Gourmet Vanilla Beans.
The vanilla beans used by the hospitality industry are predominately Grade A (aside from manufacturing), however many of the beans found in the retail environment and available to home chefs are Grade B or old Grade A beans.