There's nothing plain about vanilla
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EL James who wrote 50 Shades of Grey made vanilla famous for all the wrong reasons. What was she thinking? There is absolutely nothing plain about vanilla.
Like wine and coffee, vanilla has a language of its own when swirling around the culinary world. It’s fragrant, floral, herbaceous, smokey marshmellowy, woody, exotic, spicy, pungent, subtle and full-bodied. And it all comes down to its complex compounds and the science of terroir.
What is terroir you may ask?
Terroir is a French term that literally translated means ‘earth or soil’. The term is widely used in wine tasting to describe the specificity of place. It has come to include not only the soil of a region but also the climate, the weather, the aspect of the vineyards and anything else that differentiates one piece of land from another.
When the original vanilla orchids left the shores of Mesoamerica, it went globe-trotting to the furthest corners of the world. Vanilla beans are now cultivated and harvested in tropical places as far flung as Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Réunion, Tahiti, Indonesia, China, India, Tonga and Uganda.
Naturally, the terroir of each vanilla-growing region is unique and this imparts its distinctive flavour profile. This is why vanilla exporters label their products by source so bakers and chefs know where in the world the product comes from and what to expect of its taste and aroma.
Different flavours from different regions
As discussed, the terroir of a region affects the flavour of vanilla beans. Without going into too many details, here’s a brief description of the a few of the best vanilla beans from different corners of the world.
- Madagascar-Bourbon vanilla beans are sweet and creamy.
Papua New Guinea-Tahitian vanilla beans have tropical fruit and floral aromas.
Mexican vanilla beans taste nuttier with a hint of spice.
Indonesia vanilla beans have a smoky flavour brought on by the smoked curing process.
Vanilla’s complex compounds
Vanilla is one of the most complex spices in the world and varies in concentration depending on where it is sourced. It boasts having at least 250 different flavour and aroma compounds and only one of those is vanillin. That’s the stuff that can be made artificially in a lab; the rest comes from nature.
Vanillin is a phenol that makes up 85 percent of vanilla’s flavour and has a natural affinity with other sweetly-fragrant spices. The other components of vanilla bring different notes to the nose, if we’re allowed to reference the wine industry.
Let’s look at the 4 key components of vanilla and what they bring to the party.
Connects with other naturally-sweet and warming compounds.
Draws out notes of cinnamon, ginger and licorice.
Connects with other naturally woody and smokey compounds.
Draws out notes of cocoa, allspice and black pepper.
Connects with other naturally sweet, woody and spicy compounds.
Draws out notes of cloves, nutmeg and aniseed.
Connects with other subtlety sweet, floral compounds
Draws out notes of cherry.
Read more about Vanilla Powder and its uses.
It’s all in the baking and cooking process
Apart from terroir, the ‘far from plain’ flavour profile of vanilla is also influenced by what it is added to and the baking or cooking process. For instance, the protein and fat in ice cream has the effect of reducing the concentration of vanillin while sugar or corn syrup that’s used as a stabiliser has the effect of increasing the vanillin concentration.
As the concentration of oil in a recipe increases, the effect of protein decreases. It’s thought that with the absence of oil, the vanilla compounds interact more readily with the protein. As more oil is added, the compounds are dispersed and discontinue from interacting with the proteins.
Another thing to consider is the affect of heat on vanilla compounds, more specifically vanilla extract which contains alcohol. As the vanilla heats up, the natural flavour nuances start to evaporate. When making ice cream, custard or cakes, only add the vanilla beans or extract when the mixture has had a chance to cool down.
Due to the complex compounds of vanilla, it’s a balancing act between protein, oil, heat and the esteemed bean. Bakers and chefs understand the variation in flavour and aroma profile and are careful about not only where the vanilla beans are sourced but how they are treated in the baking and cooking process.
How to release the flavour of vanilla
Vanilla beans do most of the job for you depending on what type of bean you choose but they need a little help during baking and cooking preparation. First things first, pick the vanilla bean that’s best for what you’re baking or cooking.
Grade A vanilla beans have a moisture content of between 30-35% while Grade B beans range between 15-20%. Due to its high moisture content, Grade A vanilla beans have a more subtle and delicate flavour but it takes very little time to transfer the aromatic essence to dishes. This is because the flavour has already had time to steep in the natural liquid of the gourmet bean.
In contrast, Grade B packs a stronger, earthy flavour because the essence of the vanilla is more concentrated in a bean with a lower moisture profile. You get more flavour from a Grade B vanilla but only once it’s been steeped in a liquid of sorts. In the case of vanilla extract, this is 35% ethyl alcohol content.
Grade A gourmet vanilla beans give up a rich flavour profile almost instantaneously which is why they are preferred by the top bakers and chefs of the world. Grade B vanilla beans are more suited for producing quality vanilla extract for commercial use.
Handy hints to get more flavour out of your vanilla beans
Remember, many trace compounds in vanilla are quick to evaporate, particularly when heated. Here are a few handy hints to get more flavour out of your vanilla beans.
- Use the vanilla seeds immediately after you’ve split the bean and scraped them off the skin.
- Cook the vanilla seeds or pure extract over a low heat to limit the loss of subtle nuances.
Lightly pound the vanilla seeds using a mortar and pestle to release the flavour from the inner fibers.
Add whole pods early in the cooking process to allow the flavour to diffuse out of the tough pod tissue.
Vanilla beans will dry out, become brittle and lose their flavor if left out in the air or in direct sunlight. Wrap them in foil, seal them in a Ziplock bag and store them in a cool, dark place. This way they’ll keep their flavour for several months.
If your vanilla beans dry out, add them to a jar of vodka with an airtight lid. You can then use the vanilla-infused vodka as a homemade substitute for vanilla extract.
Don’t throw away any vanilla pods once you’ve scraped out the seeds. They’re still packed with flavour and can be added to sugar, coffee beans or your favourite cocktail.
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