A Guide to Vanilla, an Ingredient That's Not So Vanilla After All
Vanilla gets a bad rap. We often use it to mean "plain" or "boring," a kind of default flavor that isn't anything special. It's the trusty companion that amps up flavor in baked goods, left to linger on the shelf until the next batch of cupcakes. But the world of vanilla is so much more wide and varied than the plant usually gets credit for. If you try a single origin vanilla from Tahiti, it tastes different than one from Madagascar or Mexico or Indonesia. And those subtle differences can add nuanced flavor to the dish you're working with.
Vanilla beans, like wine, have a terroir. That means that their taste is affected by where they grow and what else grows around them, and what that particular vanilla works well with. Beth Nielsen, a third-generation owner and manager of Nielsen-Massey Fine Vanillas & Flavors, explains it this way: "Think about Mexico and what grows there," she said. "Chocolate, tomatoes, chiles—those are things that pair really well with a Mexican vanilla. Typically, anything I'm making with allspice flavor, I'll also use a Mexican vanilla."
Nielsen suggests trying single-origin vanillas in a pretty simple way—add a few drops to some carbonated water that you've sweetened just a touch with simple syrup. That makeshift soda is a great way to taste the differences in vanillas that might be obscured when you use vanilla extract or vanilla paste in your dish. There are five main growing regions of vanilla. Here, a quick guide to what those are and how the flavors between them differ, as well as what kind of dishes work well with that vanilla.
Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla
Madagascar Bourbon is the vanilla that is most dominant in the United States, and typically the flavor you'll get if you just buy a vanilla extract with unclear origin from the grocery store shelf. The taste is, per Nielsen, "full, sweet, creamy, and mellow with velvety aftertones." That means it's ideal for applications like vanilla ice cream, creme brulee, and vanilla sauces, as well as with seafood, as in this Vanilla Lobster Sauce.
This vanilla has a stronger, smokier flavor, with some woody notes to it. Those smokier notes mean that it's a good vanilla note to add to red meat, and a surprisingly nice pairing with something like this Beef and Beer Chili. You could also use it in desserts where you want a more assertive, smoky vanilla taste, like in this recipe for Churros and Smoked Chocolate Ice Cream.
A favorite of pastry chefs, vanilla from Tahiti has a delicate, fruity flavor, which Nielsen noted is often described as anise- or cherry-like. It's particularly excellent used in foods that are served cold or frozen, where the floral note really blossoms, or alternatively, foods that are exposed to high heat. It's a great vanilla to add to drink, for example, like this Cold Brew Coffee Cocktail. It also pairs well with the classic French Beurre Blanc sauce to add a touch of that fruity note to fish.
This vanilla has a creamy-sweet flavor with notes of chocolate to it, making it really good for adding to chocolate dishes. Try it in Hot Chocolate, or in Hot Chocolate Fudge Cakes. It would also be a fun thing to experiment with in Chocolate Chip Cookies, or in Chocolate Gravy.
Mexican vanilla has an almost spicy-sweet flavor, with notes of woodiness too. That makes it excellent for using in food that has Mexican influence, like this Mexican Mole Chili, or anything that you want a little extra kick to. Add a touch to this Spicy Dark Chocolate and Tahini Bark, or to Spicy Caramel Brownies.