The three types of vanilla that bakers are apt to run across are Bourbon, Mexican and Tahitian. You probably don’t need me to tell you what countries Mexican and Tahitian vanilla are from, but often people think Bourbon vanilla simply means the vanilla has been steeped or cured in whiskey, which isn’t true.
Bourbon vanilla grows on Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa that is the fourth-largest island in the world. Like cocoa beans that eventually become chocolate, the orchids that produce vanilla thrive at tropical temperatures in places close to the equator. The Île Bourbon was a tiny island near Madagascar (which is now called Reunion Island) and was a French colony that got its name from the Bourbon Dynasty that once ruled France. These islands were also important because of their location along the spice route. Hence, the vanilla on those islands is still referred to today as “Bourbon” vanilla but has nothing to do with American bourbon.
Madagascar vanilla beans are considered by many gourmets to be the world’s finest, and because of this, all of the beans that go into Spice Islands pure vanilla extract come from the island of Madagascar.
No one is quite sure how we came to use vanilla, but some think that the beans, which are bright green and resemble long string beans when raw, may have fallen off trees and fermented on the jungle floors. Then natives, who saw monkeys nibbling furiously on them, decided to give them a try themselves to see what all the fuss was about.
Subsequently, those vanilla beans evolved to what we know today as vanilla, and vanilla is considered one of the most labor-intensive (and expensive) crops in the world. Each orchid produces only one pod and has a short window when it must be hand-pollinated to produce a vanilla bean, which can only be done on the morning when the orchid is ready. Imagine the pressure to get it right! While the beans ripen on the trees, each bean is branded with the mark of the plantation owner to thwart vanilla rustlers.
The best-quality vanilla is cured, not smoked, and a quick sniff is all it takes to tell you how a bean has been cured. (Good quality vanilla should smell sweet, not smoky. During a recent trip to Chicago with the Spice Islands group, I learned all about the best ways to taste-test vanilla, but more about that in another post.) The curing process concentrates the flavor in the beans, and if someone handed you a green vanilla bean and you didn’t know what it was, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to figure out that it would one day it would become the dark, oily bean that we know as vanilla.
Spice Islands vanilla beans go through a process of sweating and drying, then are sun-dried before being shipped to the processing and packaging facility in Ankeny, Iowa. To make the vanilla beans into extract, the beans are chopped and steeped in an alcohol base because alcohol acts as a preservative and is a good base for infusions. A few brands add sugar or corn syrup, although Spice Islands does not.
People often ask me which vanilla I use, and I always say, “Well, that depends.” I have quite a stash of little bottles tucked away in my kitchen cabinet, but I do prefer Madagascar or Bourbon vanilla for baking. It has the most dynamic flavor and because mixing it with other ingredients, then heating it in the oven, can lessen its impact, I use Spice Islands pure Madagascar vanilla extract for things like cookies, cakes and adding a whisper of flavor to fruit destined for pie and crisp fillings.
Because of all the steps that Spice Islands vanilla goes through before it reaches us avid home bakers, we need to do our best to protect its beguiling aroma. Vanilla extract is best stored in a cool, dark place, with the bottle tightly capped. Vanilla beans are also best stored in a dark cabinet in a sealed bag or box, and while some people put theirs in the refrigerator, the humidity of a refrigerator can invite mold, so I don’t store mine in there. In fact, I like to use it as quickly as possible.