Why Is Mexican Vanilla Better Than Regular Vanilla?

Introduce Mexican Vanilla

Mexican vanilla refers to vanilla extract derived from vanilla beans grown in Mexico. It is widely considered to be superior in flavor and aroma compared to other types of vanilla (source). There are several key factors that contribute to the high quality of Mexican vanilla:

Mexican vanilla comes from a specific species of vanilla orchid known as Vanilla planifolia. This species produces beans with a complex, nuanced flavor profile. The rich volcanic soil and ideal climate in Mexico’s primary growing regions of Veracruz and Puebla allow the beans to thrive and develop their distinctive aromas and taste.

Additionally, Mexican vanilla beans are carefully hand-pollinated and harvested at peak ripeness. The traditional curing process preserves the hundreds of flavor compounds within the beans through a labor-intensive method of sun-drying, massaging, and sweating. This results in Mexican vanilla’s characteristic deep, intense vanilla notes.

Compared to vanilla extracts made from beans grown in other regions, Mexican vanilla stands out for its floral, fruity, and spicy notes that complement both sweet and savory dishes. Its high vanillin content and complex flavor profile make it a favorite for bakers, chefs, and foodies around the world.

Unique Vanilla Species

Vanilla originated in Mexico, which is home to over 100 different species of vanilla orchid. However, the primary type grown in Mexico for vanilla production is Vanilla planifolia, known as Bourbon vanilla. This is a rare, premium species prized for its complex flavor profile.

close up of vanilla orchid flowers growing on a vine.

Bourbon vanilla has a rich, deep, sweet flavor with hints of caramel, fruit, and flowers. It contains high levels of vanillin, the primary flavor compound in vanilla. Bourbon vanilla is more robust, complex, and aromatic compared to the regular vanilla grown in other parts of the world, which is often the more common Vanilla tahitensis or Vanilla pompona species.

The Vanilla tahitensis and Vanilla pompona species have a simpler, less nuanced flavor that lacks the depth and multidimensional notes of Bourbon vanilla. While they are easier to grow than Bourbon vanilla, their flavor is considered less gourmet. Bourbon vanilla from Mexico offers a uniquely exquisite, sensory experience.

Ideal Growing Conditions

Mexican vanilla grows best in the hot, humid climate found in the state of Veracruz along Mexico’s Gulf Coast. The area experiences high temperatures, heavy rainfall, and rich volcanic soil – all of which provide ideal conditions for vanilla orchids to thrive.

The vanilla orchids require constant warmth and humidity to grow properly. Daytime highs in Veracruz average around 90°F with 80% humidity, while nighttime lows stay above 70°F. This tropical environment allows the vines to flourish. The high rainfall (averages over 70 inches annually) keeps the soil continually moist.

Veracruz sits on ancient volcanic land, so the soil contains minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium that vanilla plants need. This fertile, well-drained soil has the perfect acidity level for growing exceptional beans. By contrast, the climate in Madagascar and Indonesia where regular vanilla is cultivated is more arid and the soil less nutrient-rich.

Labor-Intensive Cultivation

Mexican vanilla orchids must be hand pollinated to produce the vanilla pods. This delicate process involves using a bamboo stick or toothpick to lift the leaf-like hood that protects the orchid’s reproductive organs and then manually transferring pollen from the stamen to the pistil.

Each orchid flower only opens for one day and must be pollinated within that small window for successful pollination and eventual vanilla bean production. Skilled workers carefully pollinate the thousands of orchid flowers on each plantation every day during the short April-May blooming season (Mexican Vanilla – A History).

Mexican vanilla growers follow sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation, natural pest control, and avoiding synthetic chemicals. This contrasts with large-scale regular vanilla farms that often utilize chemicals and monocropping.

Careful Curing Process

Mexican vanilla utilizes a careful and labor-intensive curing process that develops the beans’ complex flavor. The beans are harvested by hand when ripe and then “killed” within 24 hours to stop the ripening process (https://vanillery.com/how-to-cure-vanilla-beans-part-1/). Traditional Mexican curing involves sweating the beans in the sun during the day and wrapping them in blankets at night for 2-3 months. This allows enzymes to develop the beans’ full aroma and flavor profile (https://mexicanvanilla.com/pages/history-of-vanilla).

In contrast, regular commercial vanilla is often cured more quickly through hot water processing or drying machines. While faster, this shortcuts the careful enzymatic process needed to develop the beans’ hundreds of flavor compounds. The traditional Mexican sun-curing technique allows the beans to fully mature, resulting in a deep, complex flavor unavailable in regular vanilla.

High Vanillin Content

Vanillin is an aromatic compound that provides the characteristic flavor and aroma of vanilla.1 It makes up 1-3% of natural vanilla beans and is responsible for triggering our senses of taste and smell when we use vanilla.

Mexican vanilla contains very high levels of natural vanillin compared to regular vanilla. Pure Mexican vanilla has vanillin content between 1.8-2.4%, more than double most regular vanilla extracts which contain less than 1% vanillin.2 This results in a more intense and nuanced vanilla flavor. The vanillin in Mexican vanilla also comes entirely from the vanilla bean itself, whereas some lower quality vanilla may use synthetic vanillin.

Unique Flavor Profile

Mexican vanilla has a uniquely complex and nuanced flavor profile compared to regular vanilla. The aromatic beans have notes of spice, woody accents, and raisin-like sweetness that come through in the extracted vanilla (The Spice House). This complexity results from Mexico’s terroir and traditional production methods.

The rich volcanic soil and ideal climate of Mexico’s vanilla growing regions allow the vines to thrive and develop bold, multifaceted flavors. The beans are then hand-pollinated and slowly cured, enhancing the natural flavors. In contrast, regular vanilla is often grown in less optimal conditions and put through faster industrial processes, resulting in a one-dimensional flavor.

When baking or cooking with Mexican vanilla, the complexity comes through in the final dish. The vanilla accentuates other ingredients with its spicy, woody notes while also adding characteristic raisin-like sweetness. The nuanced flavor profile makes Mexican vanilla shine in both sweet and savory applications.

Applications in Baking and Cooking

Mexican vanilla adds amazing depth of flavor to a wide variety of baked goods and desserts. Many bakers consider Mexican vanilla the best vanilla for cookies, cakes, pies, and other treats. The intense vanilla notes complement chocolate, fruit flavors, and spices like cinnamon. Mexican vanilla’s creamy, floral aroma comes through strongly in recipes like chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodle cookies, vanilla cake, bread pudding, panna cotta, and crème brûlée.

When baking, start by substituting Mexican vanilla in small amounts in place of regular vanilla extract. A little goes a long way. The vanilla flavor will be much more pronounced, so you can use less Mexican vanilla than a recipe calls for regular vanilla. For example, use only 1-2 teaspoons of Mexican vanilla versus 2-3 teaspoons of regular vanilla extract. The unique flavor profile of Mexican vanilla complements and enhances many desserts.

In savory cooking, Mexican vanilla adds wonderful aroma and depth to dishes like rice, oatmeal, and even chicken or fish. Add a small amount when making Mexican rice or oatmeal for breakfast. The vanilla scent and flavor complement spice blends found in Mexican and Latin cuisine. A dash of Mexican vanilla also enhances the flavor of sauces, custards, and soups.

Overall, Mexican vanilla can be used as a direct substitute for regular vanilla extracts in both sweet and savory recipes. But its exceptionally intense vanilla flavor and aroma mean you likely need less. The resulting dishes highlight the complex, floral nuances of real Mexican vanilla.

Source: https://www.yummly.com/recipes/mexican-vanilla

Socially/Environmentally Sustainable

Mexican vanilla farmers pride themselves on sustainable and ethical farming practices. Many Mexican vanilla farms are certified organic and fair trade.

To obtain fair trade certification, farms must meet fair labor standards and democratic decision-making practices. Farmers receive fair prices and earn premiums to improve their communities. Fair trade certification supports sustainable livelihoods for small-scale farmers and their families (Source).

Organic certification verifies farms use farming methods that maintain soil fertility and conserve biodiversity without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic Mexican vanilla is grown without chemicals in its native habitat (Source).

In contrast, most non-Mexican vanilla is mass produced on large plantations with synthetic inputs. Intensive monoculture farming degrades soil health over time. Regular vanilla supply chains offer lower incomes for farmers and fewer controls over ethical practices.

Worth the Price

Mexican vanilla does generally cost more than regular vanilla extracts and beans on the market. Pure Mexican vanilla extract can retail for $25-50 for a 4 oz bottle, while Grade A whole beans may cost $150-200 per pound. This is notably higher than imitation vanilla extract made from synthetic vanillin, which can cost just a few dollars per bottle.

There are several key factors that make real Mexican vanilla worthy of its premium pricing:

– Mexican vanilla comes from a rare, unique species of orchid that only grows in Mexico’s climate. The vanilla orchids produce a complex, nuanced flavor that is highly sought after.

– Labor-intensive hand pollination and slow curing process required to produce high quality vanilla raises costs. Mexican farmers must carefully tend to each orchid blossom.

– High natural vanillin content, 2-3 times more than other varieties, provides intense vanilla flavor perfect for baking and desserts.

– The flavor depth and aroma make Mexican vanilla extremely valued by professional chefs and bakers. A little goes a long way to elevate recipes.

For home cooks and consumers, the experience of using real Mexican vanilla is a worthwhile splurge for special occasions or treats. The complex vanilla notes sing in cakes, cookies, ice cream and custards. With its unique flavor only found in Mexican vanilla, the premium price brings exceptional quality that enhances many dishes.

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