What Is a Vanilla Bean?
Globally, there are over 100 varieties of vanilla orchids. Only one, Planifolia, produces the fruit responsible for 99 percent of commercial vanilla, and previously the vast majority of vanilla came from Madagascar, but recently productions in other countries like Indonesia have massively increased.
Another type of Vanilla, the Vanilla Tahitensis is grown in Tahiti. Its fruit has a more pronounced aroma, but debatably less flavour and thus it is much less popular.
Harvesting takes place 6 months after the vanilla pods appear, and take a further 6 months of treatment before the vanilla is dry and ready to use. The vanillin content is responsible for the flavour and some areas will grow vanilla beans with a much higher content.
For many mass produced foods, fake vanilla will be used (vanillin flavouring) which is obviously unhealthy and nowhere near as good as the real thing. Most vanilla beans are produced into extract.
The tiny seeds in vanilla are often used in full as they are higher in flavour and also add to the authenticity and look, such as with vanilla ice cream.
Cooking with vanilla pods or extract is simple, the vanillin can be scraped out of the bean with a knife or spoon and then used immediately.
Beans that are dried out can be rehydrated with warm water, some people prefer to use warm milk.
Where to Buy Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans, like other expensive ingredients such as Saffron, involve intensive labour for farming and are subject to import and export taxes, and consequently are valuable and expensive.
The Grade A (or Premium) Vanilla pods are usually longer and a little wider than the normal ones, anything above 14cm is generally considered Grade A.
You can find them in most supermarkets and also online such as on Amazon or Etsy, and you should never buy large amounts at the same time until you are confident the brand/supplier is trustworthy.
Vanilla beans should be flexible and not brittle, they should bend and not break, and the smell should be something amazing. If the smell is dull you should immediately avoid them.
Storing Vanilla Beans
The beans should be kept in an airtight container for a maximum of 2 years. They should be kept in a cool food storage room and should not be left in the heat or direct sunlight.
The vanilla bean has many trace metals such as magnesium, potassium & iron, but are not renowned for impacting nutrition in general, their significant benefit is the happiness brought from their taste and smell.
The amount added to recipes likely isn’t going to affect your daily nutrition significantly.
A real benefit of using the bean may be in the mood-enhancing aroma and taste, and the calming and relaxing mood that it brings through smelling or eating it. And another advantage would be the reduction in sugar used in recipes when using vanilla due to its sweet and strong aromatic flavour.