Published July 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
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.
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.”