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For custard-based recipes in which vanilla is the star, we’ve found that vanilla beans impart deeper flavor than vanilla in its more familiar form, extract.
Published July 1, 2011. Appears in Cook's Illustrated July/August 2011, America's Test Kitchen TV Season 12: Cool and Creamy Desserts
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What You Need To Know
We tested five brands of vanilla beans sourced from Madagascar (the world’s largest producer)—three mail-order beans and two from the supermarket—wondering if the tides had turned since we rated them more than a decade ago. At that time, we couldn’t recommend any supermarket samples, finding them dried out and hardened, with few seeds and even less flavor.
To assess the differences, we sliced open a pod from each brand and scraped out the seeds. We then used the seeds in an uncooked cream cheese frosting and simmered both seeds and pods in dairy for use in a simple crème anglaise and in the base of our Vanilla Ice Cream.
This time around, in a surprising reversal, we found the supermarket beans not only improved, but also slightly better than the mail-order ones. While some variation can be expected from any agricultural product, most of the differences among beans likely came from how much of the flavor compound vanillin was developed during the curing process. For Madagascar beans, this involves dipping the pods in hot water to halt all growth, drying them in the sun, and placing them (wrapped in cloth and straw mats) in wooden boxes to sweat overnight. This cycle is repeated until a manufacturer decides that the beans are ready to be moved to holding rooms, where they rest until they’re shriveled, brown, and fragrant—an indication that they’re ready for sorting.
Bottom line: Although all of the brands were acceptable, we recommend splurging on our winner (at $15.99 for two, they’re more costly than the mail-order brands) when you want moist, seed-filled pods with complex flavor that tasters called exceptionally “robust” and “vivid.”
Everything We Tested
Comments: The maker of our favorite vanilla extract wins again, with a vanilla bean that offers “complex” flavor that suggests caramel with “a hint of butter and lemon.”
Comments: Crème anglaise is where this supermarket brand was “clearly the star,” offering “complex and lasting” flavor that tasters called “almost buttery,” “nutty,” and “bold.”
This bean stood out particularly well in frosting, garnering compliments for its “warm,” “refined and clean” flavor. Others noted its “toasty and buttery” undertones. In sum: “This is complex stuff.”
This mail-order brand delivered a “burst” of vanilla flavor, though some tasters were disappointed when it “quickly dissipated.” What they did catch was “clean,” “rich,” and “caramel-y” in both the ice cream and crème anglaise.
Recommended with reservations
Comments: While some tasters praised this mail-order bean for its “nice balance” and “well-rounded” flavor, others found it understated at best. Complaints included “Tastes like yellow cake batter,” “Just kind of flat,” and “Where’s the vanilla?”
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