7 Things you really need to know about vanilla
Despite being a supposedly "plain" flavor, there are many different flavors of vanilla. Some of these flavors are real; others just exist in the minds of marketers. Telling them apart is a matter of some learning and a lot of taste testing. We'll help with the science part so you can get down to the taste testing.
Vanilla gets a bad rap for being ordinary, nondescript and, well… vanilla. Which is, of course, a little unfair, because who would turn down vanilla ice cream, cake or cookies just because they were only vanilla? If you've ever wondered about the differences among vanillas, the good news is we have the answer for you.
1. The only real difference: location, location, location
Forget fancy titles and all that. If you're strolling along the dessert aisle, looking at the different types of vanilla, the biggest difference you're going to find is where the vanilla was grown. Vanilla came from the New World, where it was grown in Mexico.
For literally hundreds of years, it was impossible to grow vanilla outside of Mexico, because its pollination depends on a local bee. Then someone found out you could hand-pollinate the vanilla plants. Once this was discovered, vanilla plantations started to pop up in Madagascar (called Bourbon vanilla after the Bourbon kings of France), Tahiti and the West Indies.
While there may not be a lot of differences between many so-called vanilla flavors, you can definitely tell the difference between vanilla from the four regions.
2. There's also only one real location: the tropics
Despite that fact that vanilla is available from four distinct regions, by far and away it's mostly cultivated in Madagascar and the Indies. When you think of vanilla, what you are really thinking about is Madagascar vanilla.
3. Beware, traveler: Native "Mexican" vanilla ain't all it's cracked up to be
In fact, vanilla production in Mexico has diminished over the years despite it being the place vanilla began. The decline is so pronounced that unless the Mexican vanilla you are using has been inspected, it's likely a mixture of vanilla and a native bean that smells vanilla-y.
4. So, wait… French vanilla's not really a thing?
Well, yes and no. Despite the fact that the French controlled areas where vanilla is produced today, French vanilla originally referred to custard flavored with vanilla, not a specific vanilla flavor. Today French vanilla can refer to any creamy vanilla flavor or aroma and is often minted with other caramel, warm or nutty notes.
5. What about those black flecks in vanilla bean ice cream?
Have no fear, those are really vanilla beans. When you order something that's styled "vanilla bean," as long as it has little black specks in it, you can rest assured you're getting something that has been flavored with the beans of the vanilla.
If you've never seen a vanilla pod, it looks like a long black green bean. If you slice open the pod, inside are hundreds of sticky little seeds. Most often these get dunked in alcohol for a few weeks or months to make vanilla flavoring (which you can do yourself if you have some liquor lying around the house). However, sometimes the seeds are added as is to various desserts for an intense vanilla flavor. Fortunately the seeds are too small to affect the texture of the dish.
6. Vanilla extract is a thing, though, except when it's not
Speaking of vanilla extract, it's amazing, and you probably think you bake with it all the time. However, do beware — grocery stores sell a whole lot of imitation vanilla extract, which is chemically based and eschews the whole vanilla-pod-in-alcohol process. There's nothing wrong with imitation vanilla, except that both its aroma and flavor are much more muted compared to the real thing. The good news is those stores tend to sell the real thing for only a few dollars more than the fake stuff.
7. Beware the undue influence of fancy packaging
Lastly, we come to the real question. If you go to the ice cream aisle at your grocery store, you'll be inundated with a lot of fancy packaging trying to sell you on one particular brand of vanilla. They use terms like "homemade," "home style," "premium," "world class," etc. Again, none of these terms really means anything. Their variations in flavor tend to come from how much vanilla they used, what alcohol they used to make their extracts and if things like eggs or other flavorings are used.
That's not to say those factors don't make a difference, because they do. One ice cream company's vanilla flavor is completely different from another brand's. However, when it comes to the vanilla itself, the only real differences are location and whether the flavor comes from beans or extract.