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Picking a Favorite Vanilla

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Written by foodie pam   
Friday, 08 October 2010

ImageEach year as the cool Fall weather kicks in I start baking more.  Usually, my first big Fall baking activity goes hand-in-hand with a big shopping trip. Staples like flour and white sugar need to be re-filled. Baking powder and some baking spices need a refresh even if they are not gone as they lose their oomph over time.  I also stock up on chocolate (cocoa powder, dark chocolate and bittersweet chocolate) which I don't keep in large quantities because it can absorb other flavors.  And then there is vanilla extract, which is suspended in an alcohol solution and I believe best kept in relatively small quantities. 

In general, I'm not specific about the brands or types of my baking staples, although I prefer to use a high quality chocolate like Scharffen-Berger and am very careful about the amount of cacao for each particular use.  Similarly, in years past I've been  careful to use a high quality vanilla extract like Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, but I must admit I didn't pay much attention to what type of vanilla I used.

Recently I was reading through some baking cookbooks and noticed that most authors state a favorite vanilla extract.  Usually they state not only a brand but also a specific vanilla origin.  That got me thinking - why don't I have a favorite vanilla?  Honestly, it's just because I've never compared the various vanillas. So, I decided to do a vanilla taste test, and of course, share the results with all of you…

Since I wanted to compare different vanilla origins rather than different producers, I limited my testing to four different types of vanilla (Mexican, Tahitian, Organic Madagascar Bourbon and Madagascar Bourbon) all from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas which is my favorite brand of vanilla.

The first question I had was how to taste vanilla?  I mean, it's not really something you want to drink right out of the bottle is it?  I queried fellow foodie and cookbook author Peggy Fallon who immediately replied that drizzling vanilla on sugar cubes was a good first step.  She also was quick to point out her current favorite vanilla, but I was not going to let her bias me in my quest…

To make the test blind, I covered the labels on the four vanillas and with the help of foodie Husband we got down to tasting the vanillas.  We both unanimously agreed on the results which essentially divided the vanillas into two groups.  The first group, consisting of the Mexican and Tahitian vanillas, had a more pronounced and somewhat spicier vanilla flavor with the Mexican being a bit more mellow than the Tahitian.  The two Madagascar Bourbon vanillas had a less strong vanilla flavor that almost seemed like a secondary note compared to the Mexican and Tahitian vanillas.  Of them we preferred the organic Madagascar Bourbon which was more mellow that the non-organic. (As a side I should note that Madagascar Bourbon is not related to American whiskey, rather it refers to the Bourbon island chain that Madagascar is in. Nevertheless vanilla extracts are suspended in alcohol and we felt both Madagascar Bourbon vanillas had a bit of an alcohol flavor). 

ImageGreat, we both ranked the Mexican vanilla higher which also just so happened to be Peggy's favorite as well.  We were done right? Nope. My foodie consultant cautioned me that the vanilla might taste different when incorporated into a baked good.  A true test must incorporate the vanilla into something - preferably a baked good that is vanilla centric.  Rather than make four batches of cookies I limited the second stage of testing to the top two vanillas above.  I made Vanilla sugar cookies (as much fun as slurping large batches of whipped cream sounded it seemed a bit over the top and still didn't involve baking!). 

The results with the cookies were essentially the same as above. Our favorite was the Mexican Vanilla which resulted in a stronger vanilla flavor in the cookies.   As a side, I should note that the product information for the Tahitian vanilla states it "is best used in products that are not subjected to high heat, such as in refrigerated and frozen desserts, pastry creams, fruit pies and sauces, smoothies and shakes, and puddings and custards".  Guess I should have done a whipped cream comparison too!  Perhaps the Tahitian would have won that one…

Still, I'm glad I did the comparison. I was surprised by the clear differences between the Mexican and Tahitian compared to the Madagascar Bourbon vanillas.  How about you? Do you have a favorite vanilla?  If you want to be your own judge and have a spare afternoon, some sugar cubes and an outlet for batches of cookies give the taste test a try.  But, if you'd rather not spend the time on such a project you may want to just trust Peggy Fallon, myself and foodie Husband and go with the Mexican vanilla. I know that's what I'll be using for all my fall and holiday baking this year…

Disclosure: Items discussed in the What's Tasty posts may have been provided by vendors, publicists, and/or manufacturers to Project Foodie.

Disclosure: Samples of products discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or manufacturers.


Last Updated ( Friday, 08 October 2010 )
Matt Nielsen (Unregistered) 2010-10-11 08:26:15

Hello Pam. I wanted to write to thank you for mentioning us as your favorite vanilla. Thank you! You did a great experiment. And, in fact, my father always preferred the Mexican Pure Vanilla Extract too. Me? I'm spoiled. I get to use each type based on what I'm cooking. I use the Mexican to enhance spice flavors and in savory recipes. I use Tahitian to enhance fruit flavors, especially berries, and in recipes where it can really stand out. Otherwise I use the Madagascar variety for everyday needs. Ultimately, no matter what, it's all up to personal preference! Thank you again and keep up the good work!

Best Regards,
Matt Nielsen
Nielsen-Massey Vanillas
peggy (Author) 2010-10-11 10:29:00

Thanks so much for sharing all the details of your experiment. I'm now anxious to try Tahitian vanilla in an "un-baked" application. I figure in the worst case scenario, I can always dab it behind my ears as perfume--good vanilla is without a doubt the most intoxicating fragrance in the world!
Michaele Thunen (Unregistered) 2010-10-12 08:03:40

I enjoyed your taste test of the various vanillas.
I have always used Mexican Vanilla, but I purchase the vanilla that is produced in Mexico,
the one with the red, green and white label. How does that one compare to the Nielsen-Massey
brand? Would you be willing to take the test a
bit further and compare the two in your next article? Thanks so much, I always enjoy what you have to write, not only informative, but very entertaining, as well. Michaele
pam (Publisher) 2010-10-12 16:08:18

Michaele - I'll see if I can find that brand to compare with the Nielsen-Massey.

Peggy - Yeah I'm eager to try out the Tahitian "un-baked" as well. I'm definitely using it in my next whipped cream...

Matt - I'd love to be so spoiled!
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