Know Your Vanilla - A Guide to Vanilla Varieties

Monday, November 2, 2009

I recently decided it was about time to update the vanilla variety guide which I originally wrote back in 2006. You'll find that I've now added Indian and Indonesian vanilla to the list and added to each a few recipe ideas that would best utilize the vanillas. Furthermore, I've noted a good base recipe with which to better identify the subtleties of flavors between them. Enjoy.


-Unbeknownst to most, happiness can be measured by the amount of vanilla beans you have.-

"Package came for you," I looked up to see my co-worker Shanette holding a box for me. "Now will you stop hovering and looking for the mail guy?"

"YES! Thank you!" I snatched the box from her hands with gusto. I had been waiting eagerly over the past week for this to arrive - a box with what I assumed to be a small sample of sweet vanilla.

About a week before I had received a letter from Beanilla where a guy named Rob had inquired if I would like to try a some of their vanilla beans, and if I enjoyed them if I might write about them and if I didn't then no worries. I told him I would love to and that since this was the first offer of anything due to the blog I couldn't have been more ecstatic.

That is until I opened the box. The second the box opener sliced through the tape a gust of vanilla surrounded me. Rushing out of the box like Pandora's demons they quickly engulfed my office and everything was redolent with sweet, creamy, and spicy vanilla aromas.

Rob had sent me well over 200 vanilla beans of varying varieties. So many that I even called over all of my blogging and cooking friends and offered them free vanilla beans. Even after all the gifting, giving, and mailing I still had more than enough to last me years. In fact I still have a jar full of beans from that original shipment and since each bean can be used so many times I doubt I'll run out any time soon.


-Oh yeah, that's the good stuff. Right. There.-

Since that post went up I ran across Indian vanilla beans - India now becoming a major exporter of beans that possess a dark rummy scent that hints of cherries like the Bourbon variety. In addition, Rob recently wrote me and asked if I would be down with trying some new beans imported from Indonesia. I agreed and he once again sent me a large package of beans, along with a few samples of vanilla paste and extract (the paste now becoming my choice of vanilla for blondies, bread, and other rich baked goods). The beans themselves were strong, the scent reminiscent of sweet prunes and cinnamon. One of the most unique vanillas I've ever encountered.

I decided to run a new test to try out some of these vanillas. Looking at my old notes I decided to make a few batches of sugar cookies and whipped cream, two nicely blank slates which would best be able to show off the flavor of the vanillas. While at first I was curious if each would be just the same old vanilla once baked, each demonstrated a prideful arrogance in its individual flavor profile. One cookie had a a slight creamy flavor to it, while when sniffing the other I caught a slight boozy scent. One whipped cream was classic vanilla, and the other a smokey hint of tobacco seemed to linger in the background.

Once again, varieties of vanilla had proved themselves to possess particular flavor qualities that should be taken into consideration when purchasing vanilla.


-Knowing the differences in the various varieties of vanilla beans may make you a vanilla snob. You'll learn to be okay with that.-

-VANILLA VARIETIES-
Madagascar - Dark, full bodied, and rummy with a hint of tobacco, just like Rob told me it would be. Perfect for recipes that might be flambeed or if you need a vanilla to stand up to powerful flavors that might overshadow it.

Bourbon - Bourbon is defined by its fruity profile. Your nose may detect scents of figs, papaya, persimmon and cherries. Its diverse qualities make it good all around variety, but I personally prefer it with cookies and cakes where I want the vanilla to add dimension and complexity.

Mexico - This vanilla is sweet, smooth, and creamy; designed for infusions in milk, pastry cream, whipped cream, and all manner of ice creams. My personal favorite.

Tonga - This variety reminds me of cherries and of autumn, very brisk and felicitous. More of a delicate flavor. I've dedicated this one to using in developing fruit sauces for adorning meats as it seems to compliment the savory tastes of chicken and pork and at the same time enhance the fruit.

Papua New Guinea - Subtle notes of chocolate and red wine define this vanilla. Not a favorite as often it seems to disappear in the background of other more prominent ingredients, and when I want vanilla to stand front and center I usually want something a bit bolder. Still, for delicate tea cakes and that ilk of pastry this is a choice vanilla.

Tahiti - Generally floral, with hints of licorice and fig. I found that I prefer this vanilla in jams and preserves as it adds a floral bouquet to the overall taste. In addition, that slight licorice taste makes it choice for developing your own chai mix or spice rubs where you wish to include vanilla. Some Tahitian species are grown in other places that actual Tahiti. Tahitian strains actually grown in Tahiti have a darker, chocolate-like flavor.

India - The beans are huge and very oily, with a very muted, woodsy quality. A good vanilla that would stand up well to spices with a more heady comportment in a dish where the presence of cloves, rosemary, cinnamon, or thyme (and other such flavors with a dominating flavor) may threaten to eclipse other vanilla varieties.

Indonesia - These beans are thick, oily, and pliable. One of the mightiest of beans in physical presence. Also, it's one of the oddest. The scent of vanilla is somewhat fermented and the overall scent profile is one you would associate with prunes. In fact, I would say they smell more like prunes than vanilla. However, when cooked the vanilla flavor becomes more pronounced. Perfect for stewing fruit, or in pies and compotes.

Tahitensis & Planifolia Blend - The most typical and assuring of the vanillas - a genetic Wunderkind. This is what you might assume "typical" vanilla to smell like. A bit of a one note wonder, but because it possesses such a strong and reliable vanilla flavor that doesn't change with cooking it's my regular go-to vanilla variety. Probably the one I use more than any other - particularly for making vanilla extract or vanilla sugar. It's also one of the cheapest varieties.

So which one to pick? I suggest going with one or two that intrigue you the most and starting with that. As I noted earlier in the post sugar cookies are a great way to test the flavor profiles of vanilla. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream are other good options. Whatever you do decide to use be sure that vanilla is the only and predominant flavor.


-Sugar cookies are one of the best ways to try out vanilla beans.-

Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Anita Chu's Field Guide to Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen


3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup of butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups of sugar
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1 vanilla bean
2 eggs

1. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Set aside.

2. Cream the butter and sugars together at high speed for about 3 minutes.

3. Cup open and scrape out the contents of the vanilla bean. Add to the butter-sugar mixture and mix in for 30 seconds.

4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 30 seconds between each. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix a bit more.

5. With the mixer on a low speed slowly add the flour mixture. Mix until just incorporated.

6. Cover dough and refrigerate for 45 minutes. While it chills, preheat the oven to 325F and line some baking sheets with parchment paper.

7. Roll the dough into balls about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter. Place them on the baking sheets and give them a small press to flatten them.

8. Bake for 9-10 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Allow to cool on the sheets for a minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.


-Picking the right variety will help you enhance your cooking and your cookies.-

Thanks again to Rob at Beanilla. You've given me a chance to explore one of my favorite flavors and share that knowledge.


-This is about as artsy-craftsy as we get here at Vanilla Garlic before I get frustrated and throw things. This knot took me, like, ten damn minutes.-

86 comments:

  1. Holy cow--I didn't even know there were that many different varieties of vanilla. Lucky you! I've only been a reader here a short while, but I don't doubt you'll have some fantastic cupcakes made with your many beans.

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  2. Wow! So much to know abt Vanilla..thank you

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  3. Thank you for the info. We are starting an orchard here. It will take 3 yrs to see results. If all is good. I shall let you know. Fly over, come and visit. See u in 3 yrs! - Go Cupcake!

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  4. WOW! This is one of the most complete and useful Guides I have seen on the net. I have been looking for something like this for sometime now. Thanks!

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  5. Thanks so much for telling u about these varieties.....I do love the fresh Vanilla beans rather than the extract....can you send me some too?

    ;)

    trupti

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  6. I didn't know there were so many kinds of vanilla beans! How exciting to create new cupcakes or ice cream with them and pair them with different ingredients.

    eileen

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  7. I now suffer from vanilla envy (It's not sexy).

    I ADORE vanilla and if I had recieved that package, I'd have sat down on the floor and stuffed my face into the box and just allowed myself to breathe deeply. For hours. I never knew vanilla beans possessed such diverse qualities. Thanks for sharing the info.

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  8. Wow - I've never even heard of some of them, but they all sound great!
    I know I'll be coming back to this guide often; thank you so much for the posting. looking forward to the recipes also!

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  9. You are indeed very fortunate, especially since I think of vanilla beans and their extract as essential items to have in a kitchen. When I lived in the States, I bought vanilla beans from Boston Vanilla Bean Company, who sell their beans at great prices. I will have to check out your guys as I will need to buy more while I am back in the US over the summer. I hope you make great use of this fantastic offering - and I'm trying really hard not to be jealous.

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  10. I couldn't resist... I purchased some vanilla beans from Beanilla.com and all I can say is WOW! These are absolutely wonderful vanilla beans. Keep the vanilla recipes coming because its time to get to work! Thanks for this wonderful guide.

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  11. Wow! How did you rate this gift? While I'm primarily a chocolate person--mo' bitter, mo' better--I have heard of some of these, and am profoundly jealous of your acquisition.

    Your blog is rapidly becoming one of my favorites.

    Now, give us a rundown on "the stinking rose". (Life without garlic isn't worth living.)

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  12. Kahlua! You should try making homemade Kahlua with some of the beans, it's wonderful!

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  13. I have just recently been inquiring with Rob about the shipping packaging they use.

    How did you get to try them free? I live in an extremely rural part of Arizona and haven't been able to find vanilla beans in a 45 mile radius of my home! It's crazy! Do you still have a couple beans to spare? I would love to try them out before I take the plunge and buy a pound! =P

    -Michelle

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  14. Quite the unexpected windfall! thanks for sharing the info, now I will have to get my grubby little hands on said beans.

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  15. Those information comes in handy,
    Thank you so much for writing it down. "and sharing"

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  16. great post. I love vanielje and use it in anything and everything I can. Was lucky enough to have lunch at the Fat Duck today where I had salmon poached in liquorice served with grapefruit, coriander seeds, artichokes and Vanilla mayonaise. Pure heaven I tell you. I have got to try and re create that mayo. Just going to check back with your post to try and decide which vanielje I need. thanks

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  17. Thank you for this - very informative and useful!!!

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  18. What a wonderful tutorial! I can't imagine the cost of all those vanilla beans. That is amazing:)

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  19. I was wondering were you can purchase the Madagascar Vanilla bean and no that you are getting it. Also I didn't know you could make your own and that it does have Vodca in it. thanks for the great tip. Gayle

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  20. As somebody who grew up on the island of Reunion, the home of true Bourbon Vanilla (Bourbon is the old name of Reunion island), I - of course - love real vanilla and vanilla bean. Do you know that this orchid (yes, vanilla beans are the fruit of an orchid) originates from Mexico? When it was exported to other countries in the hope of producing vanilla and break the Spanish monopoly - in the 18th century - growers were very disappointed that they could not get the orchid flower to fruit (it's because the orchid needs a specialized pollinator was endemic to Mexico). It was not until a slave figured how to manually fertilize vanilla in the early 19th century on Bourbon Island (now Reunion) that the culture of vanilla took off in so many different places.

    It's a fascinating spice!

    Sylvie
    http://www.Laughing DuckGardens.com/ldblog.php/

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  21. Gayle, after reading this article we purchased vanilla beans from http://www.beanilla.com. There is no question about it that you are receiving real Madagascar vanilla beans from this company for we are very experienced in using the different flavors from the different varieties of vanilla beans in our applications.

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  22. How did you taste the vanilla for this post? I like to test different types, and different brands of extract (one of these days I'll get around to making my own...), but I need a "vehicle" to do so. Usually I put it in yogurt or something simple like that.

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  23. I'm getting to make some vanilla extract for Christmas gifts and you post was invaluable. Seriously good info...thanks!

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  24. I've been a vanilla fanatic all my life. Thanks, primarily to the web, I've learned to appreciate how precious it is.

    I stumbled upon your blog and Beanilla while looking for French Vanilla ice cream recipes. I'd heard of the varieties of vanilla but never heard or read of their differences described. Thanks so much.

    I'm gonna make ice cream and vanilla extract as soon as the beans I just ordered from Beanilla.com arrive.

    desiree

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  25. Thank you, thank you so much for compiling all the infos of vanilla from all the regions! I'm glad you didn't turned down Beanilla's offer :-D

    My country's already in the process of planting vanilla beans. I'm yet to find them in the local market even though the plantation company claimed they are exporting the beans 80 % and remainder is for local consumption.

    At hand, I got 300 g of Madagascar Bourbon in my collection from my travels. I'm looking forward to use them as well comparing them with my country's local production.

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  26. This is a really useful resource Garret . Thank you. Australia recently began producing beans. This is a link to the Queensland growers.
    http://www.daintreevanilla.com/

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  27. Very cool article!

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  28. I just read your article in Edible Sacramento...and now this. Can we please be friends? I think I would faint from happiness if I got 200+ vanilla beans in the mail.

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  29. what about garlic vanilla? *rim shot*

    *weak laugh*

    sorry. long morning.

    great post. Thanks, G.

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  30. This is incredible, Garrett! Your words capture the subtle nuances of something as vanilla as, well, vanilla. Working within what seems like such a narrow framework, and making them all sound so uniquely and singularly different... now THIS is talented food writing, people!

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  31. This is such great intel. I love how you have broken down the flavor notes for each variety.

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  32. Thanks for the great vanilla guide you've posted!

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  33. Great post, Garrett! I love your idea of using sugar cookies as a base to reveal the subtle differences of the types of vanilla. I love plain sugar cookies.

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  34. Thanks for the cookies! They were delish! :)

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  35. Well now, how can Rob ignore your blog, right? It's right there in the name!! :) Get to work on those custards, lol!
    Thanks for the lesson on the varieties- we only grow Tahitensis here, and I didn't know there were more than 3 varieties!

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  36. Yum. So, so jealous. I love vanilla beans. I wanted to let you know I tried the Pumpkin Cookie recipe you posted on simply recipes about a year ago and it was fantastic.

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  37. I really love this post! I'm sharing a link to it on my Savory Simple Facebook page.

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  38. I really loved this tutorial. Not being particularly fond of chocolate, vanilla has been my favorite dessert flavoring. I had no idea there were so many different kinds! The introduction was helpful, especially since I ordered some Mexican vanilla beans in order to make a top notch frosting this week!

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  39. Thanks this is a great site. Lots of info. I make my own extract and use a lot of beans. Thanks again.

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  40. Incredible post about vanilla. I just discovered vanilla paste and it is addictive. I also have recently discovered vanilla sugar and I can eat that stuff right out of the jar it is so yummy.

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  41. Rob, I loved your post - very informative and helpful. I have just returned from a trip to Indonesia - have organic vanilla and other spices samples as well as amazing coffee samples - wow.

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  42. Dee - I think you mean me, Garrett, the writer. Rob is the guy who works at Beanilla, but he also rocks. ;)

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  43. Just returned from Dominica and bought some vanilla beans from a roadside lady. Read that they need to be 'aged' after being picked - how do i know if she just picked them and they need to be aged or if i can just put them into some vodka and let them age there? thanks, KB

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  44. Annonymous - Aged? Huh, well beans are aged by allowing them to dry out in carefully controlled ways. If they're green you have one hell of a project on your hands. I would crack one open and smell it - if it smells vanilla-y I think you might be okay. If not, I suggest a bit of research on the best way for you to age them might be due.

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  45. Thank you for the information about vanilla, helping me for product development as a farmer

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  46. Excellent descriptions of vanilla varieties...I was shopping for whole beans on Beanilla and was getting a bit overwhelmed. Glad I found your article! Very helpful!!

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  47. Hey Garrett, I'm trying to come up with a recipe for making vanilla for a local distillery which features vodka. Is there a particular bean you'd recommend?

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  48. I have been wanting information on the flavor differences in the types of beans. You have explained a lot and I thank you.

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  49. Love this blog. I found the "make your own vanilla" post on interest and ended up on your blog. I have always wanted to buy vanilla beans but didn't know where to start. Thanks for the info on the different kinds and the website of where to buy.

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  50. Love this blog post! I was thinking about making some vanilla extract for Christmas gifts - I had no idea that there were so many varieties of beans! Thank you for the guide, sooo helpful!

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  51. How would a person store their extra vanilla beans? I kept some in a plastic bag, tied with a twisty tie and they dried out. Of course, I don't think they were a very good quality to begin with.

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  52. That was an excellent sugar cookie recipe. So buttery!

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  53. Thanks for the tutorial. I received a few beans from a friend who ordered Madgascar beans. I found your blog looking for how to infuse the beans to make my own vanilla...LOVE vanilla extract for cooking! I've used pre-made Madagascar bourbon extract that I bought at a whole food store. I can't wait until mine is ready to use.

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  54. Wonderful! Anytime you have extra beans, send them on my way. Love the stuff. I just made a batch of vanilla/rum. Not that vanilla needs the rum, but I expect it to be a delightful combo (I have bourbon beans at the moment.)

    This is my second batch. I cook a lot and ran out over a year ago. Going back to the store bought just does not cut it.

    Loved the tutorial and various recipes. For the sugar cookie, another delight is to make them with white whole wheat flour (King Author brand online if you can't find it locally.) Adds a deep nutty flavor to the cookies and that is only enhanced by a wonderful vanilla!

    Maria
    (BearMountainBooks.com)

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  55. I have vanilla beans from the island of Zanzibar. Any idea which type of vanilla these might be?

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  56. No idea on Zanzibar beans, sorry. =P

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  57. What about those of us who like to buy American? Next time you update, why not try some Hawaiian? Here is the link. http://www.hawaiianvanilla.com/
    I have tried their extract and like it! Am in the process of brewing my own with their beans.
    Doug

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  58. What about Mexican vanilla? I've brought whole beans back from the Yucatan (as well as Panama) recently, would love your take on their typical flavors/uses. Thanks!

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  59. thanks for sharing your valuable knowledge about vanilla :)

    I'm planning to make some vanilla soap since my friends bought me a pack of raw vanilla beans. Is there any specific way to extract them? Or should I just pestle them?

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    Replies
    1. I would dry them out and grind them =)

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  60. I am so glad I found your blog, I bought samples of all the beans that Beanilla offers and in the process of trying to make my own extract among other things. How often can I reuse my beans after they have sat in a particular type of alcohol for 8 weeks?

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    1. Just keep them in the alcohol to continuously increase he potency of the extract.

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  61. Garrett, I bought the vanilla bean sampler from Beanilla, comes with 9 different varieties of beans (3 beans per vile) is a 1/2 pint jar big enough or too big to make vanilla extract out of 3 beans?

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    1. It should be fine. I usually just buy a bottle of vodka and dunk three split beans in and forget about it for a few months.

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  62. Which bean would you use to copy the pure Mexican vanilla that we bring back from Mexico? The Mexican beans?

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  63. So I wonder now about Tahitensis / Planifolia from Indonesia ???

    Will it be the excellent Planifolia bean or will it be the Indonesian "prune flavor" as noted in this review ?

    thanks,
    B

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  64. I'm so glad that I ran across your blog, people like you, is what make the difference in me continuing baking and cooking , using vanilla flavor, due to the cost of buying it over the counter, going to attempt to make my own..
    Thanks a million.

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  65. This is so well detailed and useful! Thank you for this great reference - using it to make a variety of homemade vanilla extracts to cook with and gift.

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  66. Wow. Thanks for this! I've been intrigued for the last year. I've wanted to make and EXcellent gift for my friends who know how to cook and bake. But I wanted the best. So...I'm still not too sure which to buy. I asked two of my friends and they both used madagascar vanilla extract. Now...to use vodka or bourbon?

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  67. Dear Garrett, I love, love your writing style. Very fun and funny.

    I just want to give you this interesting info. My mother uses vanilla extract to give her white hair a light brown color. A great way to dye hair without chemicals (or much money, if you make your own extract from beans).



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  68. Thank you so much for all the information on the different varieties of vanilla beans. I've been wanting to make some vanilla extract for gift giving. I feel a little more knowledgeable about it now. Thanks again.
    bcook715

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  69. Hi there-
    Am just about to make an order from Beanilla for my retail store- Great to see your blog and this post. Thanks for the info, recipes and advice.
    Awesome to see how long this post has attracted visitors. cheers... wendy t

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  70. Do you have to use 3 beans for a small jar? You said that you use 3 beans for a whole bottle of vodka?

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    1. I just use three beans for a bottle fo vodka and call it a day. =)

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  71. How do I package the vanilla to mail to another state?

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    Replies
    1. I would just place them in an airtight container. =)

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  72. Thank you so much for all the info.....first time here but will never buy Extract again :) (after the next 2 month of course) I am going to have to look for some of these varieties :)

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  73. I bought a variety pack from Beanilla and made this recipe so I could taste a couple varieties! Can't wait to try them!

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  74. Enjoyed this post! Are you on Pinterest?

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  75. By the way, I couldn't find the Tahitensis & Planifolia Blend on Beanilla. Is that where you get yours?

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    1. These days it's usually classified under Tahitian.

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  76. Great info . I am a new learner about all this and I have a question for you if you could please answer me as soon as possible I would be very grateful. So all I want to do is a kind of essential oil, or infusion , don't know exactly how to call it. I don't wanna use it for cooking but for fragrance in my diffuser and in my organic home made cosmetic products... my question is witch kind of vanilla bean should I use for the most strong, beautiful aroma vanilla like ? I don't mind if it has a bit of fruity - chocolate smell too, what do you recommend? Thank you

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Hey, you're leaving a comment! That's pretty darn cool, so thanks. If you have any questions or have found an error on the site or with a recipe, please e-mail me and I will reply as soon as possible.
~Garrett

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