Vanilla beans are some of our very favourite things, and we feel that too few people use them regularly in their kitchens. With a market flooded by cheap imitation vanilla extracts (which are derived from coal tar and by-products of the paper industry and contain no actual vanilla – you really should throw them away), many people see authentic vanilla as an expensive luxury. But we insist that the intense flavour you get from a vanilla bean will vastly improve the quality of your baking and desserts.
Vanilla beans are the fruit of a certain orchid variety native to Central America. Producing vanilla pods is truly a labour of love. The orchids need to be hand-pollinated, and nine months later when the beans are ripe, they are hand-picked and sun-dried during the day, then wrapped in woolen cloth to sweat at night. This intensive process is the reason for the high price of vanilla beans.
We sell two varieties of vanilla beans: Bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla beans from Papua New Guinea. Bourbon vanilla beans have a rich, creamy flavour and are the ones most commonly called for in recipes. If you want the flavour of a good-quality vanilla ice cream, this is the vanilla bean for you. Bourbon beans come from the same species of orchid as Mexican vanilla beans, but are often better quality. Madagascar grows most of the world’s Bourbon vanilla. Tahitian beans have a more floral aroma, and are actually preferred by many pastry chefs for the slight fruitiness they give to desserts. We recommend trying both types over time to see which ones you like best.
Good vanilla beans should be dark, long, wrinkly and moist. Don’t worry if there are white crystals on the inside or outside of your bean. This is just crystallized vanillin, the compound that gives vanilla beans their flavour. To use a vanilla bean, cut it in half lengthwise with a sharp knife, and then use the knife to scrape out the sticky black seeds or “caviar” inside. The whole lot – seeds and pod – are often simmered in cream for a custard or pudding. If you’re not using the empty pod, though, put it in a jar of granulated sugar for a few weeks to make your own vanilla sugar, or lay the pods over halved pieces of fruit and bake in the oven for a delicious dessert.
We usually sell our vanilla beans three at a time in a bag. For budding pastry chefs out there, we also offer bags of 10 beans at a significant discount.