Vanilla is one of the most popular and beloved baking ingredients in the world. Its sweet, fragrant flavor is used in everything from cookies and cakes to ice cream and beverages. There are a few main types of vanilla available, including Mexican vanilla and regular vanilla extract. Many bakers claim that Mexican vanilla has a stronger, more complex flavor compared to regular vanilla. But is this really the case?
In the opening paragraphs, we will provide quick answers to some key questions about Mexican vanilla versus regular vanilla:
- Mexican vanilla comes from orchids grown in Mexico. Regular vanilla can come from different origins, like Madagascar or Indonesia.
- Mexican vanilla is made from a subspecies called Vanilla planifolia. Regular vanilla extract is usually made from this same species, even when grown outside Mexico.
- Mexican vanilla pods tend to be thicker, more oily, and have a higher vanilla content than other origins. This contributes to a stronger flavor.
- The curing process for Mexican vanilla often relies on sunlight rather than technology. This helps preserve a more natural, intense flavor.
Below, we will do a deep dive into the differences between Mexican and regular vanilla to determine if the former really provides superior flavor.
What Makes Mexican Vanilla Unique?
Mexican vanilla comes from orchids of the species Vanilla planifolia that are grown and harvested in Mexico. This is the same species used to produce regular vanilla extract around the world. So what makes the Mexican variety stand out?
There are a few key factors that differentiate Mexican vanilla and contribute to its intense flavor:
- Origin – The soil, climate, and environmental conditions in Mexico impart distinct characteristics to the vanilla compared to other regions where it is grown.
- Curing process – Mexican vanilla pods are traditionally cured in the sun rather than in ovens. This slower, more natural process helps develop a complex vanilla flavor.
- Quality – Mexican vanilla pods tend to be thicker, more oily, and contain a higher concentration of vanilla flavor compounds compared to vanilla from other areas.
In addition, Mexican vanilla is subject to standards and regulations that help ensure quality. Only vanilla grown in certain approved regions can be certified as Mexican vanilla. These rigid production methods also contribute to a consistently excellent flavor.
Impact of Terroir on Mexican Vanilla
“Terroir” refers to the environmental conditions and geography of a particular place that impart unique qualities to crops grown there. The terroir of Mexico makes the vanilla grown there unlike vanilla from anywhere else.
Mexican vanilla mostly comes from the state of Veracruz. This coastal region has the right environmental factors to grow top quality vanilla:
- Climate – Warm, humid climate with regular rainfall.
- Soil – Volcanic soil provides the right nutrients.
- Elevation – Growing regions are at just the right altitude.
These conditions impact the flavor compounds within the vanilla beans. For example, drought causes vanillin levels to drop but high humidity boosts vanillin content. The terroir leads to beans that are fattier, more aromatic, and simply delicious.
Traditional Curing Techniques
After vanilla pods are hand-picked, they undergo an intricate curing process that develops the vanilla flavor. Mexican vanilla is cured using regional techniques that contribute to its strong, natural flavor.
Rather than using ovens, Mexican vanilla is sun-cured by laying pods out during the day and wrapping them in blankets at night. This gradual process happens over weeks or months. Extended sun exposure enables the pods to fully mature, producing a complex flavor.
Throughout the curing, the pods are massaged and manipulated to distribute the vanilla evenly within. This level of hands-on care is a hallmark of Mexican vanilla production.
The traditional, low-tech approach to curing used for Mexican vanilla results in a superior depth of flavor compared to faster artificial processes used elsewhere.
How Does Mexican Vanilla Compare to Regular Vanilla?
Now that we understand what makes Mexican vanilla special, how does it actually compare against regular vanilla in terms of flavor?
There are a few key ways that Mexican vanilla stands apart from other types of vanilla:
- Bean quality – Mexican vanilla beans are thicker, more oily, and contain more resinous compounds resulting in amplified flavor.
- Complexity – Aroma and taste components develop more fully in Mexican vanilla during sun-curing.
- Flavor intensity – Higher levels of vanillin and other flavor molecules boost the strength of Mexican vanilla.
Testing has shown that Mexican vanilla has a higher concentration of flavor compounds. As an example, natural vanillin content can be 2-3% in Mexican vanilla compared to 1-2% in regular vanilla.
Head to Head Flavor Comparison
Side by side taste tests consistently show key differences between Mexican and regular vanilla:
- Aroma – Mexican vanilla has a more complex, floral aroma while regular vanilla smells sweeter.
- Flavor – Mexican vanilla is more robust, with woody and spicy notes complementing the signature vanilla taste.
- Mouthfeel – The oily, thick texture of Mexican vanilla delivers a more intense mouth coating sensation.
- Sweetness – Regular vanilla tends to provide more pure sweetness while Mexican vanilla has traces of bitterness and acidity to balance it out.
While personal taste preferences come into play, most experts agree that Mexican vanilla offers greater depth and balance compared to regular vanilla extract or beans.
How Chefs Use Mexican Vanilla
Professional chefs often reach for Mexican vanilla when they want an extra flavor boost in recipes. Its intense, vanilla notes shine through when used solo or paired with chocolate, spices, citrus, and more. Some favorite applications include:
- Adding to any baked good like cakes, cookies, or pastries
- Flavoring custards, puddings, and creme brûlée
- Used in sauces and vinaigrettes
- Steeping in liquids like coffee, tea, or spirits
- Sweetening poached fruits
Pastry chefs in particular appreciate Mexican vanilla’s depth of flavor and sweetness without overpowering other ingredients. It brings a gourmet touch to recipes.
How Does Vanilla Production Impact Flavor?
Aside from geographical origin and curing techniques, certain aspects of vanilla production also influence the final flavor. Both Mexican and regular vanilla can vary in quality depending on these factors:
- Growing practices – Organic methods and hand pollination lead to better beans than industrialized farming.
- Harvesting – Hand-picking each pod at peak ripeness preserves flavor.
- Extract method – Alcohol extraction produces more nuanced vanilla extract than CO2 or water processes.
- Bean grading – Sorting beans based on length, moisture content and vanillin levels improves quality.
High standards throughout cultivation, curing and extraction result in a noticeably better and more complex vanilla flavor. Mexican vanilla’s terroir and traditional small batch methods give it an inherent advantage when it comes to premium quality.
Impact of Synthetic Vanillin on Flavor
Some low quality or imitation vanilla contains synthetic vanillin rather than natural vanilla extract. Artificial vanillin simply replicates the main flavor molecule without the hundreds of other subtle compounds that contribute to real vanilla’s aroma and taste.
Synthetic vanillin results in a flat, one-dimensional vanilla flavor. Using real vanilla beans or extract with all of the essential resins and oils will provide the true depth and nuance of vanilla flavor.
Grades of Vanilla Extract
Not all vanilla extract is created equal. Different grades exist based on the concentration and ratios of key flavor molecules like vanillin. Higher quality vanilla will taste richer and more nuanced.
Extracts are graded in fold numbers ranging from 1x to sometimes 10x or higher. A 2x extract contains twice the vanilla bean essence compared to a 1x extract. Grades typically seen are:
- 1x – Regular single-fold vanilla
- 2x – Double-strength vanilla flavor
- 3x – Triple-strength with very intense vanilla notes
Higher fold extracts will offer a more concentrated vanilla punch. Mexican vanilla is often sold as double or triple-fold to showcase the deep flavor.
Mexican vanilla clearly stands out from regular vanilla for its full-bodied, complex flavor and aroma. The terroir where Mexican vanilla is grown along with regional harvesting and curing techniques allow unique flavor compounds to develop. These provide a robust vanilla experience with hints of spice and smoke.
While personal taste may vary, side by side comparisons show Mexican vanilla consistently has more aroma, deeper flavor notes, and better mouthfeel compared to regular vanilla. Professional chefs seek out Mexican vanilla for these added dimensions of taste. Higher concentrations of flavor molecules also give Mexican vanilla more intensity and strength.
Not all vanilla is created equal, but the premium quality and traditional production of Mexican vanilla make it a pungent vanilla loaded with nuanced flavors. When you need maximum vanilla impact, Mexican vanilla is the strongest choice.