I’m going to talk about vanilla. Partly to educate you, and partly (okay mostly), because I love the sound of my own voice. Narcissistic baker is narcissistic.
One of the most valuable spices in the world, with outrageous pricing, vanilla adds that je ne sais quoi to your baked goods. A good artist needs good tools, and the quality of your vanilla can be tasted in the finished product. Arranged from left to right in order of my favourites:
- Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla beans, by Rodelle
- pure Tahitian vanilla extract 120 mL, by Vanilla, Saffron Imports
- pure vanilla paste, 60 mL, by Saffron Imports
- pure Madagascar vanilla extract 59 mL, by McCormick Gourmet Organic
- pure vanilla extract 46 mL, by Club House
- artificial vanilla extract 235 mL or 1L, by No Name
What is vanilla?
The tiny vials of vanilla extract found in stores are a flavouring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, a vine native to Central America. It takes around 3 years before a vine bears fruit, and the beans take 9-10 months to ripen. Beans are picked before they ripen.
The beans are cured in 4 steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning. Afterwards they are sorted by grade, commercial value is determined by the length of the bean, the highest quality are over 15cm in length, and as the beans get shorter, their worth drops.
Vanilla is classified by cultivar: Madagascar, Bourbon-Madagascar, Tahitian, Mexican, and West Indian are the major ones I know of.
Review & price comparison
Before you buy a vanilla product check the label. Organic and pure may not mean what you think they mean. A good vanilla will not contain added sugars, caramel colouring, synthetic vanillin (a byproduct of the pulp industry), or corn syrup.
Product: Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla beans, by Rodelle
Price: 10 beans for $11.99 at Moncton Costco, (2 tubes of 5, or $1.20 per bean), purchased winter 2011
Review: My sister sent these to me in the mail. These are the best beans I have found so far. The label reads Kirkland Signature (Costco house brand), and also Rodelle, who is a supplier of premium vanilla. The label does not specify the cultivar but Rodelle’s website says “the majority” of their products are Bourbon-Madagascar beans. I’ve noticed that Tahitian beans are thinner and shorter than Madagascar, and these Rodelle beans are long and plump, so I am willing to bet they are from Madagascar.
Product: Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla beans, by Tosca
Price: 2 beans at Loblaws / Superstore for $7.99 (in 1 tube, or $4.00 per bean), purchased Jan 2011
Review: These were decent. Tosca products are imported by National Importers and you will get a much better deal buying one case (24 beans, 2 per tube) for $59.88 which is $2.50 per bean from the supplier instead of the store. The beans were okay length, a little on the thin side, with a pleasant flavour and aroma. Tosca sells premium (grade A) beans from Papua New Guinea, but the packaging does not classify the cultivar. However, their extract is made from Bourbon-Madagascar so I assume the beans are too.
Product: “organic” vanilla beans and Tahitian vanilla beans, supplier unknown
Price: approx. $6.00 for one organic bean, $2.00 for one Tahitian, at Domino’s Foods, St. Lawrence Market, purchased Nov 2010
Review: I have mixed feelings on these. I was excited when I bought them because I love buying stuff at the market, and they were priced better than the grocery store. The Tahitians were really skinny. The organics were a bit plumper. They both dried out quickly. I recall that my impression after using them for the first time was that considering how long it takes to get down to the market, and the cost of the beans, it’s not really worth it for me.
Product: pure organic Madagascar vanilla beans, by Sun Rise Brand
Price: 2 beans for $5.99 at No Frills, summer 2011
Review: Haven’t tried these. Noticed the bottom of the gold label says email@example.com and that seems weird.
Product: 120 mL of pure Tahitian vanilla extract by Vanilla, Saffron Imports
Label: vanilla bean extractives, alcohol 35%, water, no sugar
Price: $11.99 at Domino’s Foods, St. Lawrence Market, purchased Nov 2010
Review: Don’t be fooled by the plain packaging. This is amazing. Out of all the extracts I have tried, this has the best flavour and is well-worth the money. Unfortunately they will only ship products to Canada if there is no alcohol, and this contains alcohol, so you’ll have to find a re-seller which gets pricey. :[
Product: pure vanilla paste, 60 mL by Vanilla, Saffron Imports
Label: contains vanilla beans
Price: $6.99 at Domino’s Foods, St. Lawrence Market, purchased Nov 2010
Review: Flavourful and interesting product, a nice change from using a liquid extract. Difficult to extract from the bottle, the paste is thick.
Product: pure Madagascar vanilla extract 59 mL, by McCormick Gourmet Organic
Label: water, organic alcohol, extractives of organic vanilla beans, organic corn syrup
Price: $8.38 at Toronto Wal-mart, purchased Aug 2010
Review: I am a little confused, what is organic alcohol? What is so “pure” about adding corn syrup to vanilla? Their product info says this is “the highest quality” and I have to disagree. The flavour was not to my liking.
Product: pure vanilla extract 46 mL, by Club House
Contains: water, alcohol, sugar, vanilla bean extractives
Price: $3.94 at Toronto Wal-mart (also at $3.93 at No Frills), purchased Aug 2011
Review: This is okay but I wouldn’t buy it again.
Product: artificial vanilla extract 235 mL and 1L, by No Name
Contains: water, alchohol, caramel colour, artificial flavour
Price: $2.89 for 235 mL at No Frills ($3.49 at Loblaws), and 1L for $6.99 at No Frills, summer 2011
Review: I only use this stuff when I make cookies. My inner snob did not want to admit that.
The beans are cheapest at Costco, $1.20 per bean to get a package of 10 is pretty awesome. Very nice quality. Hopefully you have a relative with a membership that you can harass.
I would love to find a cheaper source for the extracts from the Vanilla, Saffron Imports company. Hey there, you guys at Vanilla, Saffron! If you have any extra 32 oz. bottles I would be happy to take them off your hands.
I’m not sure why my favourite extract is Tahitian when my favourite beans are Madagascaran.
What is your favourite vanilla product?
Playlist: Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata
They look like bottles of 19th century medicine.
They do, don’t they. I read on Vanilla Review that using a coloured glass bottle protects it from sunlight. I keep mine in a dark cupboard anyway, but I thought that was good to know. I wonder why the Saffron Imports one is in clear plastic.
thanks for the interesting post on Vanilla : )
I’ve never used vanilla beans, but had an idea I might be able to flavour my own coffee whitener by adding a bean to the container…any idea how this might work?
Once a vanilla bean has been split and scraped, you’re left with a shell, which is not completely empty, it still contains some seed pods, and can be used to infuse flavour into other ingredients; drop it in a sugar container or into a carton of cream. (The shell part is the full outside of the bean.)
I would plan to make something using vanilla bean first, since when you scrape and split the shell, you’ll get thousands of seed pods, and adding all of that to your coffee whitener might be overwhelming.
When you are done baking, place the discarded shell in the whitener, and let it sit for a few days and enjoy.