What is the Best Tasting Vanilla?
Inquiring as to what vanilla variety tastes the best is like asking what the best type of oil is. They all have different flavor profiles, aroma notes, and uses. In a pinch, you might be able to substitute one for the other, but the end result probably won’t meet your expectations. Like oil, it’s understandable that when you are just getting to know vanilla beans, it might be difficult to choose the perfect one for your recipe. That’s precisely why we created this guide—to help you get to know the diversity within the possibilities of vanilla beans that could grace your culinary exploits, natural home apothecaries, perfuming, or cosmetic creations.
Understanding the Differences in Vanilla Varieties and When to Use Them
There are several different species of vanilla orchid, each producing vanilla beans that trend toward their own unique size, moisture content, volatile oil levels, flavor profiles, and aromas. Of those, only 3 are commercially produced: Pompona, Planifolia, Tahitensis. Read on as we uncover the differences in the 3 species, as well as the flavor and aroma deviations based on growing region.
Most of the vanilla beans you will come across—especially if you find them in a grocery store—will be of the Planifolia variety. It is the origin and harvesting/preserving processes that set them apart. Because they are the most common vanilla orchid, the foundational flavor and aroma hosted in the seeds of the vanilla pod are that soft, familiar vanilla flavor found in all of your favorite desserts.
Madagascar Vanilla Planifolia
Some of the most frequently utilized vanilla Planifolia beans originate from Madagascar, and are commonly known as Bourbon vanilla after the Island previously known as Le Bourbon, which is where most vanilla is grown and exported from today. It has no association to Bourbon Whiskey, though it is a wonderful flavor addition to an Old Fashioned. Madagascar vanilla is rich, earthy, and contributes depth of flavor that will bring out other undertones of the dishes you use it in. Vanilla beans from Madagascar are the perfect choice for custard-style dishes like crème brulee or bavarian cream.
Vanilla Planifolia from Uganda
Ugandan vanilla is much less common than the Madagascar variety, but if you are lucky enough to get your hands on some, you’ll be incredibly pleased. Like Bourbon Vanilla beans, Planifolia from Uganda has wonderful depth and earthiness, but they are notably more heavy in terms of both density and flavor. Their notes of cream and chocolate make them a wonderful choice for pastries and gelatos. Learn more about what sets Ugandan vanilla beans apart from other varieties in this article.
Indonesian Vanilla Planfolia
The unique curing method distinctive to this region contributes a wonderful smokiness that perfectly balances the notes of fig and sweet cream. It also enables these beans to hold up better under high-heat applications. We love using this variety to make our frequently-requested vanilla barbecue sauce.
Vanilla Planifolia from Papua New Guinea
PNG Vanilla Planifolia is known for possessing hints of smokiness and intensity. They contain a higher vanillin content than most other vanilla beans and are closer to dark chocolate than its milk counterpart in terms of flavor profiles. Though that beloved cream flavor found in most Planifolia varieties is not lost; it comes out in buttery undertones similar to what you would expect in caramel.
Mexican Vanilla Planifolia
Once the sole region of growth for Vanilla beans, Mexico has fallen behind in terms of the world’s producers of vanilla beans. Mexican Planifolia is noted for having hints of cinnamon, cloves, and even tamarind. Some folks even report experiencing sweet and spicy undertones. We love pairing Mexican vanilla with chocolate—think hot chocolate or mole!
Vanilla Planifolia from Sri Lanka
A region primarily known for tea and cinnamon, it may come as a shock to learn that Sri Lanka is the producer of some of the most prized Vanilla Planifolia in the world. These beans are rich, smooth, and satiny. They are a stand-out choice for making vanilla extract, but are also perfect for baked goods like donuts and cookies!
Though not all Vanilla Tahitensis is grown in Tahiti, it’s namesake region, cultivation of this variety has expanded far beyond its birthplace. It’s aroma is unmatched, with notes reminiscent of flowers and dew drops creating an intoxicating allure that positioned it as the frontrunner for fragrance applications.
The appeal of Tahitian vanilla doesn’t stop there, though. Of the two most popular species of vanilla orchid, it is the Tahitensis that produces the beans favored by pastry chefs, due to the subtle sweetness expelled from the caviar within the inner chamber of the pod.
Vanilla Tahitensis from Tahiti
While Vanilla Planifolia still holds the top spot for culinary applications, Tahitian vanilla is quickly gaining ground. With undertones of red wine, peach, and cherry, these beans are perfectly positioned to make savory dishes shine; we especially adore them in seafood dishes like this Vanilla Brown Butter Cod!
Vanilla Tahitensis from Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea now produces even more Tahitian Vanilla than the island of Tahiti. Like its cousin produced in Tahiti, PNG Vanilla Tahitensis is fantastically floral with cherry undertones, but they tend to have an oaky depth similar to that of the Bourbon variety of vanilla beans. They are truly something unique! Take a deeper dive into the world of Papua New Guniea Vanilla Tahitensis by checking out this article.
Vanilla Tahitensis from Ecuador
Ecuadorian vanilla is a favorite of chefs around the world; known for its oily sheen, powerful aroma, and hints of stone fruits. The rarity of these beans has positioned them as a delicacy in the world of vanilla, adored culinary enthusiasts and the more particular chefs of the restaurant scene. A choice bean for meringues, we love Ecuadorian Vanilla Planifolia in this incredible Pavlova recipe.
Pompona vanilla beans are rarely found outside of specialty bake shops or online high-quality spice purveyors. These beans stray the farthest from that familiar vanilla flavor and aroma we mentioned earlier. They are most notably found in Central and South America—and even grow wild in rain forests of those regions—but they are also produced in the East Indies and even Florida. Pompona is the rarest of the commercially produced vanilla beans and, as such, is often hard to obtain. That said, you can find Costa Rican Pompona beans right here!
Vanilla Pompona from Costa Rica
These beans tend to be larger in length and density than other vanilla bean varieties—3 to 4 times the size, actually! They are nearly bursting with moist, flavorful vanilla caviar and have an element of sweetness similar to dried fruits, which makes them a wonderful choice for vanilla extracts or baked goods (these are wonderful in homemade breads or bread puddings), but they are also absolutely lovely in perfumery and medicinal concoctions!
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