While searching for vanilla beans to purchase for making extract, I stumbled across several very detailed and informative sites. Although I did learn quite a bit about vanilla, I'm going to leave the all inclusive book reports to the experts. Here, I just hope to share what little I know about vanilla beans in general, in hopes that it will save someone else some time. It seems like a lot, but trust me, this barely scratches the surface.
First things first, the vanilla bean isn't actually a bean at all, but rather a pod. It comes from the vanilla orchid which grows on a vine where one flower produces one fruit. The vanilla orchid is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. Although this orchid originated in Mexico, the major producers are now in Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea. The flowers are now artificially (hand) pollinated at a precise and specific time of the day (fascinating stuff, but I'll spare you). The fruit pods are harvested by hand, then "killed" to stop the growing process either by drying in the sun or steeping in hot water, then dried and cured. It stands to reason then, why, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices, second only to saffron. Needless to say, I have a new found respect for the somewhat highly priced vanilla bean.
Supposedly, there are somewhere between 150-200 varieties of vanilla orchids (debatable, and I'm not counting). The two most distinctive orchids are the Vanilla Planifolia (aka Madagascar or Bourbon) and the Vanilla Tahitensis (aka Tahitian). While searching for beans to purchase however, I did find that there are quite a few (sub)varieties of each that are being used amongst culinary enthusiasts. Like fine wine, each type of bean possesses it's own characteristics, aromas (notes), and flavor. Also as in wine, vanilla beans are named for the region in which they are grown and/or originated. For an extensive list of each variety as well as where to purchase, you might want to check out vanillareview.com The site was very helpful in my determination of which type(s) to look for and where to buy quality beans (at the best prices).
In addition to flavor/aroma, beans vary in size, shape, and quality. They are often rated as Grade A or Grade B, each serving a specific purpose, but can be used interchangeably. Let me explain. Grade A beans are softer, longer, plumper, and contain more seeds within the pod. They are more often used for cooking, or for making vanilla paste. Grade B beans are shorter, dryer, and although contain less seeds, are still just as flavorful. (btw, the flavor is in both the pod and the seeds) Grade B beans are generally cheaper (when bought in bulk) due to the fact they contain less water weight, and therefore, are used more for making extracts. But that's not to say that you can't use a Grade B bean for cooking also. (or a Grade A for making extracts for that matter)
But don't let the outside appearance fool you, it's what's on the inside that counts. Whether your cooking with the bean or making extract, in order to get to and release the good stuff, you'll have to split open the pod. Inside are tons of tiny black seeds all clumped together, sometimes referred to as the "caviar", that carries vanillin along with other compounds that are responsible for the overall aroma(s) and flavor of vanilla. You'll then have to scrape the caviar with the back of a knife to dislodge it. Oftentimes in cooking, a recipe will also call for not only scraping the caviar, but throwing in the rest of the pod into a warming liquid as well. A good example would be in making vanilla ice cream. Once the flavor is extracted in the heated cream, the pod is then removed. This way, you get the most flavor possible.
Remember, there is a lot of flavor in that pod, so, if your recipe doesn't call for using the entire pod, don't let all that vanilla yumminess go to waste. Why not make your own vanilla sugar? Just throw the pod into a couple of cups of sugar in an airtight container and shake. In just a short period of time, you'll have a wonderful addition for your coffee, tea, or baked goodies. Here's mine...mmmmm...can't wait!
Ok, I got sidetracked there for a second (sorry). Back to the business at hand, buying the beans. After opening up the seemingly endless heavenly scented world of vanilla, I decided that not only did I want to make extract, but I just had to check out and compare some of the varieties for cooking and experimenting as well. Upon the recommendations of web sites and friends, I headed on over to beanilla.com Although their prices aren't the best if you're buying in bulk, they do have a some hard-to-find varieties in smaller packages allowing you to sample and experiment without too much damage to your pocketbook. I had a hard time choosing, so I emailed the site explaining what I was looking for and got a pretty fast and detailed response (impressive) recommending which beans I might want to try out with a brief flavor description of each. The guy suggested that I try about 3 different ones to see what extract I like the best.
Still indecisive, I opted for the 4 origin sampler pack, partly because I wanted to compare the differences in flavor, and partly because of the cool looking stand they came in. Granted the clear acrylic tubes are NOT the best way to store vanilla and keep it fresh, but what can I say? I'm a sucker for shiny kitchen "stuff". For around $26 bucks, the pack included 3 beans of each:
~Iguana Vanilla - Mexico
~Lemur Vanilla - Madagascar
~Coconut Crab Vanilla - Tahiti
~Flying Fox Vanilla - Papua New Guinea
Upon receiving them, I quickly opened up the tubes to take a whiff. At first, to my dismay, they all smelled the same. So I left the caps off and soon the aromas bloomed, each giving off it's own subtle but distinct scent. (perhaps it's a bit like decanting and aerating wine??? just a guess) Upon closer inspection, the beans were all different, varying in both shape and size. (should have saved that photo, sorry)
In addition to the sample pack, and because of the recommendation, I also ordered a three pack of the Tonga Beans for $6.50 from beanilla.com. Unlike the sample pack, these came vacuumed packed and were noticeably different. A bigger bean, fresher, much more fragrant. I detected creamy, cocoa, and tobacco (in a good culinary way) just as was described. (I'm thinking they'd be awesome in a creamy chocolaty dessert!) Now that I have since ordered and compared other beans, I can assume that the Tonga beans were a Grade A, whereas the sample pack beans where probably Grade B. (beanilla doesn't specify, although they do list the lengths)
If you're looking for a variety or hard to find beans like Tonga, or perhaps an array of convenient type vanilla products like powder, paste, salt or sugar, then I would suggest checking them out. However, with the beans being priced at anywhere from $1.00 - $3.95 per bean (depends on type and size of order) PLUS their (high)shipping costs, it would get a little pricey to buy enough to use them for extract.
Although it's nice to have a variety of beans to make pastries and to cook with, vanilla seeds aren't recommended for baking. If the heat source is above say 300 degrees F, it dissipates the flavoring. So because I do a lot of baking, I continued my search for vanilla beans specifically to use in making extract for my cakes and cookies. (oh, and for use in the occasional cocktail of course) Well, my efforts and research paid off. You can read all about it in my "Making Vanilla Extract" post. To see how this whole mess started, check out "Scary Vanilla" ;)