What is Vanilla?
Vanilla is actually a member of the orchid family, and the only edible fruit in the entire orchid family. These orchids produce pods, that we refer to as vanilla beans, and are filled with thousands of seeds. Those seeds can be collected, and are referred to as vanilla caviar. If you’ve ever had vanilla bean ice cream, those little black specks are the vanilla pod seeds.
Different Types of Vanilla
I’m going to try not to bore you, and give you the Cliff’s Notes version of the different types of vanilla.
There are two main species of vanilla orchid cultivated for commercial use. Vanilla Planifolia, the most common type, is a more potent vanilla variety with a deep, earthy, vanillin flavor. Vanilla Tahitensis, named after the islands upon which it is cultivated, is more subtle, sweet, and floral. Vanilla Tahitensis is the vanilla most commonly used in fragrances, due to its floral aroma.
Vanilla Bean Regions
Vanilla grows best 15 ½ degrees north and south of the equator, but only in humid environments. The vast majority of commercially cultivated vanilla is grown in five regions: Mexico, Indonesia, Tahiti, Madagascar, and Uganda.
- Mexican Vanilla Beans have a smooth, creamy, and spicy warm flavor.
- Indonesian Vanilla Beans have a deep smokey flavor due to the unique curing process used in the region.
- Tahitian Vanilla Beans are delicate and sweet with floral undertones.
- Madagascar Vanilla Beans, also referred to as Bourbon vanilla beans, are creamy and rich in flavor.
- Ugandan Vanilla Beans have a buttery vanillin flavor, and chocolaty aroma.
Vanilla Bean Grades
There are two primary grades of vanilla beans, Grade A and Grade B.
Grade A Vanilla Beans
Grade A vanilla beans are referred to as gourmet or premium vanilla beans. They have a high moisture content than Grade B beans, which allows the vanilla flavor to quickly infuse into a dish. Grade A beans have an oily sheen and are visibly perfect in form. This is typically the grade you want to use for cultivating caviar.
Grade B Vanilla Beans
Grade B vanilla beans have 10-15% less moisture content than Grade A beans, and are often referred to as extract beans, because their primary use is for making vanilla extract. Grade B beans will often have tears, scarring, bruises, are of varying lengths, and might even be scorched by the sun. While these imperfections do not affect the integrity of the vanillin flavor, their appearance does make them less desirable. Their low moisture content means these beans have a more concentrated flavor, making them the perfect choice for extracts.
Why are Vanilla Beans So Expensive?
Vanilla is the most labor intensive crop in the world, and the second most expensive, after saffron. Vanilla orchids are difficult to grow and keep alive, need to be hand pollinated, and can only grow in very specific climates. It takes 1 ½ to 3 years for the plants to flower and produce pods. The beans must then remain on the vines for 9 months. They are then harvested by hand, and have to go through a curing, drying, and resting period, which takes another 3-5 months. Climate change and political turmoil have also impacted cultivation in recent years.
How do You Get Caviar Out of a Vanilla Bean?
Equipment and Ingredients needed:
- A small, sharp paring knife
- Cutting board
- Grade A vanilla bean
- You don’t have to, but I find it easier to open the vanilla bean if you snip off the very ends, especially if they are curled.
- Using a paring knife, split the bean down its length. If you cut all the way through, and cut the bean in half, that’s fine.
- Open up the vanilla bean, and scrape your knife along the bean to gather the seeds/caviar.
- Use seeds immediately.
- DO NOT THROW AWAY THE EMPTY POD! You can use the empty pods to make your own vanilla extract!