A Brief Explanation About Vanilla Beans
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, which is the oldest and largest family of flowering plants in the world. It is an orchid of the Americas, originating in Mexico and some tropical regions of Central and South America. The vanilla bean is the only edible fruit of the entire orchid family, which consists of 20,000 species and another 15,000 hybrids! There are more than 160 species of vanilla orchids growing nearly worldwide, but only two, Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis, are used commercially.
The vanilla orchid blooms for only a day and must be hand pollinated in order to fruit. When the flower is pollinated, it will die and, within two weeks the fruit, which is technically the ovary, will be fully grown. It won't be ready to harvest, however, until it has been on the vine for at least nine months, as it needs time to mature. Once it is harvested, it goes through an intensive curing and drying process and then it must rest before its full flavor and fragrance emerge. From pollination to marketplace it takes a minimum of one year.
Vanilla Planifolia versus Vanilla Tahitensis
By the turn of the 20th century, Madagascar and other Indian ocean countries were producing a significant amount of the world's vanilla crop. The Indian ocean vanilla beans became known as Bourbon vanilla as it was grown on the island of Bourbon, which was soon renamed Reunion. (You're right, it gets a little confusing.)
As Vanilla planifolia is now grown in many different locations it is known by various names. Mexico refers to their vanilla as Mexican Vanilla. Vanilla planifolia from Madagascar may be called Madagascar vanilla or Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. Some countries that are not in the Indian Ocean region call their vanilla Bourbon vanilla as well. The bottom line, however, is that the beans grown in most countries is are Vanilla planifolia.
The Tahitian vanilla was mostly sold to France but in the early 1980s some Tahitian vanilla was brought to California. It took a while before it became popular as it costs more than the vanilla everyone was accustomed to, but its flavor profile was so interesting that it caught on with chefs and culinary professionals, and slowly gained greater popularity. While it is still not as widely known and used in the US as it is in Europe, it is now recognized as a different-but-special vanilla species.
How is Tahitian Vanilla Different?
Tahitian vanilla beans are moister and thicker. They contain more water than planifolia vanilla and have fewer seeds inside the pod. The skin of Tahitian beans is thinner and somewhat flatter in color. The beans contain less natural vanillin, the flavor and fragrance that defines Vanilla planifolia.
However, Tahitian vanilla contains its own unique aromatic properties that make it equally exotic and appealing. It has a fruity profile with cherry notes followed by notes of anise, prunes and wine. Its floral qualities permeate both flavor and fragrance. Flavor half of a recipe of sugar cookies with Madagascar vanilla and half a batch flavored with Tahitian vanilla and you will immediately taste the difference between the two flavors. You can also do this comparison with custard or Creme brulee.
Tahitian vanilla can be used in the same way you use Madagascar vanilla but it really shines in cream and fruit-based desserts, confections and seafood dishes. The French and Tahitians make a vanilla cream sauce for mahi-mahi that is exceptional.
If you have never tried Tahitian vanilla, I highly recommend it. I typically use the Madagascar vanilla for my everyday baking, but I put Tahitian vanilla in my salad dressings when I include citrus or other fruits in salads, and I always put Tahitian vanilla with shellfish and fish, poultry, Creme brulee, fruit pies, and much more. I always have Tahitian beans and extract in my cupboard and use it weekly. It's the secret ingredient in many of my sauces, beverages and desserts!