All vanilla beans are not created equal, but they can all be used to delicious effect in many of your favorite recipes and cocktails. Practically everyone has had the experience of preparing a recipe which calls for vanilla extract, since this flavorful substance is used in everything from chocolate chip cookies to vanilla cupcakes.
However, when you're shopping for the vanilla extract to be used in your recipes, you may have difficulty figuring out which brand might be the best for your food preparation. There are some definite differences between the brands and flavors of vanilla beans, and this discussion may help you differentiate between them, so you can choose the best product for your baking and cocktail preparations.
Varieties of vanilla extract
When you're shopping for vanilla extract in the store, you'll probably just see the words 'vanilla extract' printed on the label, that is until you get to the more expensive options. These pricier containers of vanilla extract may be labeled Tahitian or Mexican, but they seldom clue you in to what those varieties will taste like.
Mexican vanilla extract has a very smooth flavor, with just a hint of spice included. Tahitian vanilla extract has a very delicate flavor, with notes of floral and fruity taste. Madagascar or Bourbon vanilla extract is a full-bodied concoction which is universally agreed to be the strongest-flavored among all the various vanilla beans. If you really want your vanilla extract to have an impact on whatever dish you're preparing, you would be totally safe in selecting the Madagascar or Bourbon variety of vanilla beans or vanilla extract.
What makes bourbon vanilla so good?
Among the top-quality varieties of vanilla beans, Madagascar or Bourbon vanilla is by far the most common, since Madagascar is the world's largest supplier of vanilla. For this reason, much of the time you will notice that vanilla containers are simply labeled Bourbon vanilla. Even though vanilla extract consists of a full 35% alcohol by volume, the 'Bourbon' content in Bourbon vanilla does not actually name the alcohol which is used in its composition.
The name Bourbon vanilla actually refers to all those beans grown in Madagascar and the various other islands situated throughout the Indian Ocean. Bourbon vanilla beans originate from orchid v. planifolia plants, and they have an extremely high vanillin content. They also have a strong, creamy vanilla flavor which is immediately recognizable, and which will perk up any recipe you choose to tackle.
Uses for vanilla beans
Without a doubt, the most recognizable vanilla flavor in many of the treats you purchase from your grocery store will come from Madagascar or Bourbon vanilla beans. Anytime you purchase a classic container of vanilla ice cream, it probably has Madagascar or Bourbon vanilla beans mixed in. Mexican vanilla beans on the other hand, traditionally are paired with cinnamon and clove, for instance in the preparation of snickerdoodle cookies. Since Tahitian vanilla beans have a very fruity profile, they are often used in the preparation of cocktails and other creamy drinks such as vanilla custard with berries.
At the grocery store
If you've ever done some serious shopping for vanilla extract, you've probably noticed that there are some brands which are far less expensive than others. Typically, these brands are not true vanilla extracts but are constituted from vanilla flavorings, which means there's at least some vanilla in them, but they're also bolstered by a number of synthetic flavors.
The most expensive containers of vanilla extract that you will find are those labeled Madagascar vanilla or Bourbon vanilla, because these are the ones with the most intense flavor, and they're the ones most prized by gourmet chefs. Real vanilla extract tends to be quite pricey, even if you purchase a very small bottle of it.
The biggest reason for this is because vanilla is a very finicky plant, and a great deal of care must be taken to nurture it all the way through to harvest. In terms of how you should make best use of your expensive vanilla extract, you're probably better off to use real Bourbon vanilla when you're preparing a dish that calls for vanilla to be the star component. When you're making something that includes several flavors, that's when you can get away with using a less expensive variety of vanilla extract, possibly even a vanilla flavoring.