What is a good vanilla?

We will not talk here in detail about the origin , method of preparation or terroirs, parameters that necessarily influence the flavor of vanilla, but let us stop however on some generalities allowing you to make the right choice on your vanilla pods .

Split pods, mottled vanilla, deformation, natural scarification due to insects or manual scarification by the marking of workers in Madagascar, like fruits and vegetables known as ” ugly ” and at least as edible as those ” standardized and calibrated “, vanilla can also present many irregularities.

Do these defects, whether major or minor, impact the quality of the pods ? and are these vanilla pods unfit for consumption, or even simply less aromatic? 

Vanilla Bean

The flavors and aromas of Vanilla

Just as there is no such thing as wine but rather wines, personalized by grape varieties and terroirs, vanilla does not escape the plurality and nuances of aromas either. Qualitatively the perfume cannot be measured and its appreciation will be very subjective, however a good vanilla should not release an odor of fermentation, creosote or alcoholic type (phenol).

Without falling into the excess of a catalog à la Prévert, a few generalities are essential to us in spite of everything:

While many professionals use vanilla as an aromatic or olfactory indicator to describe their products (e.g. viticulture, arboriculture), the actors of the vanilla sector have also tried to describe as precisely as possible the different nuances and characteristics that makes each variety and origin of vanilla unique.

Thus, here and there, especially on the Internet, we see a profusion of comparisons where the pods are no longer vanilla but “fruit salad” with endless notes of red fruits (raspberries, red currants, blackberries, blueberries, etc.). Let’s stop there with these grotesque and interminable comparisons because a good vanilla must above all identify itself as such and give off a frank smell of … vanilla.

Without falling into the excesses previously mentioned, dsubtle and discreet aromatic notes can indeed reveal themselves to the nose according to the botanical origin, the provenance and the know-how of the preparer (ex: note of prunes for Tahitianiseed for the vanilla of New Guinea or cocoa for the planifolia of Madagascar or Mexico), but in cooking and unless you force the dose a good part of these aromas will be objectively drowned in the recipe.

To close this chapter on perfume , let’s also remember that vanilla pods sold as “fresh” are also part of the many nonsense widely distributed on the internet. As vanilla must by nature be ” refined ” (thus aged) to develop its aromas, it is not useful to take this argument as relevant when making your purchase.

The color of the vanilla pods

The color of vanilla is of little importance as it is true that the producing regions as well as the botanical varieties and the different preparation methods vary this parameter. However we can agree to say that the color varies from light brown to dark brown to black, by nuance we will say more or less chocolate. Personally, we tend to prefer the “ebony” colored pods , a sign of sufficiently long & precise refining in the sun to allow optimal development of the aromas.

A pod that is too dry, or even brittle, revealing thin reddish streaks indicates badly prepared vanilla, badly packaged or fruits harvested before the maturity phase, or even quite simply vanilla close to its expiry date and therefore potentially having a higher low vanillin content. However, and to qualify the point, a slightly marbled or simply red vanilla, but having kept its suppleness and its aromas, can turn out to be just as interesting as a black vanilla (ex: vanilla called TK for Madagascar).

vanilla bean brand
A vanilla marked by scarification by the producer, this method of identification makes it possible to limit thefts on the plantations

Shape and general appearance of the pods

Visually, the vanilla must not have any major defect (except marking of the pod workers and in which case easily recognizable) such as traces of mould, excessive stains. Scars that may be caused by insects in the immature stage ( green vanilla on the stalk ) have no impact on the quality of the vanilla. The color should preferably be uniform.

A harvest at term, an optimal and careful preparation of the pods, gives a soft vanilla full and fat (without excess) to the touch. The vanilla has to be shiny without being too shiny (too wet), nor too dull, which can be a sign of beans that have been in the alcohol, (the latter being a solvent, it will act as an extractor and will deprive you of part of the aroma).

Vanilla fat or... too wet ?

The eternal debate between vanilla that should not be dry, brittle and with little aroma and the one that should not be too wet either and that will also have less aroma.

Again, there is a fine line, but how can you tell the difference between a sufficiently refined vanilla that is fat and soft and one that is overly moist? Apart from the vanilla of Tahiti and vanilla Pompona both generous in their appearance, and with a moisture content higher than one planifolia it will be necessary to avoid the pods exaggeratedly inflated and of too oily aspect, this last aspect must be discrete and in no case to mark too strongly fingers to the touch. Ideally, do not hesitate to consult the analyses corresponding to the lot you are buying.

The size of vanilla pods

A priori, it may seem trivial to stop here on the length of vanilla. Except for equal quality, you should know that the longer a vanilla is, the greater its value . A 16 cm vanilla bean will logically contain more vanillin than a 14 cm bean.

The interest for the consumer is to buy a vanilla of 16 to 18 or 20 cm which can easily be cut in 2 or 3. Traditionally in supermarkets, a vanilla pod rarely exceeds 16 cm or even 14 or 12 cm, being said that in the latter case the yield per kg is more interesting for the seller (because more pods per kg)

In conclusion

When it comes to vanilla, the winning duo is really:

  1. The perfume : a good vanilla is a frank, generous and heady perfume of vanilla.
  2. The general appearance of the pod : suppleness and texture of the pods are good indicators of the quality of the vanilla. More or less thick, to the touch the vanilla should not be brittle but just supple, leaving a light greasy film on the fingers. Remember that the vanilla trade is regulated by the afnor 5565-1 standard.
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