Vanilla beans can impart a much deeper and more complex vanilla flavor to a custard or other dessert than vanilla extract, but while any vanilla bean is better than none, not all vanilla beans offer the same flavors. They range in quality and price, and in a recent issue (July/Aug 2011) the test kitchen at Cook’s Illustrated set out to test five different brands of vanilla beans – three mail-order varieties and two supermarket brands – to see if one stood out from the rest. All of the beans they tested were from Madagascar, the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans.
The brands they tested were McCormick Madagascar Vanilla Beans, Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Gourmet Vanilla Beans, Penzeys Madagascar Vanilla Beans, Rodelle Madagascar Vanilla Bourbon Beans, Spice Islands Bourbon Vanilla Beans. The beans were put to the test in three different recipes: mixed into an uncooked cream cheese frosting, and infused in both a simple crème anglaise and in the base for vanilla ice cream.
After all the testing was said and done, all of the beans performed well. The differences turned out to be in the complexity of the vanilla flavor that each type of bean provided. The test kitchen’s favorite bean was McCormick Madagascar Vanilla Beans, a brand available in most supermarkets. Their beans infused a deep vanilla flavor that “suggest[ed] caramel with ‘a hint of butter and lemon.'” Spice Islands, another supermarket brand, was almost as popular, with nutty and buttery overtones.
The mail-order brands all received good reviews, but it’s nice to know that you don’t have to go further than the corner store to get a good quality vanilla bean. The full results of the taste test are available on the Cook’s Illustrated website.