Vanilla is one of the most popular and commonly used spices in the world. It has a sweet, fragrant flavor that enhances both sweet and savory dishes. Vanilla comes from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid, a flowering tropical vine plant. There are a few different types of vanilla, with the two main ones being:
What is Mexican Vanilla?
Mexican vanilla refers to vanilla grown and harvested in Mexico. Mexico is one of the largest producers of vanilla in the world. There are a few reasons why Mexican vanilla is considered superior:
- Ideal Growing Conditions – The climate and soil in Mexico provide ideal conditions for growing high quality vanilla. Vanilla orchids thrive in hot, humid environments like those found along Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
- Hand Pollination – Vanilla flowers must be hand pollinated in order to produce vanilla pods. Mexican farmers still use traditional, labor-intensive methods for pollinating each individual flower.
- Curing Process – Mexican vanilla pods are traditionally cured through a lengthy process of “sweating” in the sun during the day and wrapping in blankets at night. This extended curing results in complex, robust vanilla flavor.
- Types of Vanilla – Most Mexican vanilla is the Vanilla planifolia species, which is considered the highest quality and most desirable vanilla.
What is regular or Madagascar vanilla?
Most vanilla labeled simply as “vanilla” or “Madagascar Bourbon vanilla” refers to vanilla grown on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla. Some key features of Madagascar vanilla include:
- Primarily Grown in Madagascar – As the name implies, the vast majority comes from Madagascar.
- Vanilla planifolia – Same species as Mexican vanilla, prized for its flavor and aroma.
- Less Manual Labor – Relies more on chemical fertilizers and pesticides than Mexican vanilla. Less hand-pollination.
- Faster Curing – The beans are cured for a shorter period of time through “rack drying” rather than sun drying.
How Does Mexican Vanilla Differ from Madagascar Vanilla?
There are a few key differences that set apart Mexican and Madagascar vanilla:
- Quality – Mexican vanilla is more labor intensive to produce and often considered higher quality and more complex in flavor than Madagascar vanilla.
- Price – Due to the higher quality and extra labor involved, Mexican vanilla tends to cost significantly more than Madagascar vanilla.
- Curing Process – Mexican vanilla undergoes a longer curing process that develops deeper, more nuanced flavors.
- Moisture Content – Mexican vanilla has a higher moisture content (around 30%) compared to Madagascar (around 20%). This gives it a more supple, smooth texture.
- Vanillin Content – Vanillin is the main flavor compound in vanilla. Mexican vanilla has a higher vanillin content – 2-3% vs 1-2% for Madagascar.
- Acidity – Mexican vanilla has lower acidity which rounds out the flavors, while Madagascar can have slightly sharper notes.
The differences in curing methods and chemical makeup lead to some subtle but noticeable flavor differences between the two vanillas:
- Mexican vanilla has a more floral, fruity, rum-like flavor.
- Madagascar vanilla has a stronger woodsy, smoky flavor.
- Mexican vanilla is considered more mellow, smooth, and creamy.
- Madagascar vanilla has more upfront vanilla punch.
- Mexican vanilla is ideal for dishes where vanilla is the star like ice cream or buttercream.
- Madagascar vanilla can stand up to heavier flavors like chocolate better.
Of course there can be variations even within each type, as the exact flavor will depend on factors like the variety, farming practices, and individual curing process. But in general Mexican vanilla has a more delicate, complex flavor while Madagascar is bolder and woodier.
Uses in Cooking and Baking
When it comes to cooking applications, Mexican and Madagascar vanilla can typically be used interchangeably in most recipes, but each lends itself better to some uses than others:
- Works well in desserts where vanilla is front and center like panna cotta, vanilla ice cream, cream pie fillings, etc.
- Delicate flavor enhances custards, puddings, cheesecakes and crème brûlée.
- Adds depth but not overpowering flavor to sugar cookies, shortbread, etc.
- Commonly used in Mexican baked goods like buñuelos, rompope, churros.
- Adds rich vanilla notes to chocolate recipes.
- Bold flavor stands up well in recipes with lots of spice like gingerbread, pumpkin pie, chocolate chip cookies.
- Works well in rich, dark sauces like barbecue sauce, steak sauce and vinaigrettes.
- Blends nicely into creamy foods like yogurt, oatmeal, sweet potatoes.
- Good for infusing into vinegars, extracts, oils and liqeuurs.
- Ideal for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes like baklava, Turkish delight.
So for lighter desserts and anything where vanilla is the primary flavor, Mexican vanilla is an excellent choice. For bolder dishes with lots of other competing flavors, Madagascar vanilla can hold its own better. But both types have an irreplaceable vanilla essence that will enhance any recipe.
Due to the higher quality and extra labor involved, Mexican vanilla beans cost significantly more than Madagascar vanilla. Some average price comparisons:
|Average Price (USD)
|Mexican Vanilla Beans (whole)
|$15-25 for 1 oz
|Madagascar Vanilla Beans (whole)
|$6-12 for 1 oz
|Mexican Vanilla Extract
|$15-20 for 4oz
|Madagascar Vanilla Extract
|$10-15 for 4oz
As you can see, the premium quality of Mexican vanilla makes it around twice as expensive as standard Madagascar vanilla. However, many cooks and bakers find the unique flavor and aroma of Mexican vanilla worth the higher cost. Even a small amount of Mexican vanilla can take a recipe to the next level.
How to Identify Mexican Vanilla
With its complex flavor and high price tag, it’s important to be able to identify authentic Mexican vanilla. Here’s what to look for:
- The vanilla beans should be long, slender, flexible and somewhat oily.
- The beans will be darker in color compared to Madagascar vanilla.
- Look for beans harvested from the state of Veracruz.
- The packaging will usually identify the vanilla as Mexican, Vera Cruz or Vanilla planifolia.
- Higher prices (at least 50% or more than standard vanilla).
- Seek out reputable brands known for quality like Nielsen-Massey, Tia Maria, Los Poblanos Organics.
The vanilla extract should also clearly state it is made with Mexican vanilla beans and have a higher price tag than standard extracts. Mexican vanilla has a unique, smooth, creamy flavor that is unlikely to be successfully substituted or imitated.
Is it Worth the Higher Price?
For most everyday baking and cooking needs, standard Madagascar vanilla will probably suffice. However, for special occasions like birthdays, holidays and dinner parties, or to take your recipes to the next level, Mexican vanilla is absolutely worth the splurge.
Even renowned chefs and master bakers choose Mexican vanilla for its depth of flavor and flowery aroma. The extra cost translates to higher quality beans that have been meticulously grown, hand pollinated and cured. Using Mexican vanilla can elevate simple recipes into sublime culinary treats.
Here are some instances when springing for real Mexican vanilla is worth it:
- Baking for an important event like weddings, celebrations, formal dinners.
- Preparing elegant desserts for a date night or anniversary.
- Impressing dinner party guests with elevated flavors.
- Making homemade ice cream, custard, or cream pies.
- Perfuming your home with Mexican vanilla’s signature aroma.
- Trying your hand at authentic Mexican baking like churros, buñuelos, rompope, etc.
- Adding depth and complexity to chocolate recipes.
- Experimenting with new recipes using exotic ingredients.
The price may seem steep, but a little high quality Mexican vanilla goes a long way and can take recipes to the next level. For true vanilla lovers, the extra refinement is priceless.
While both Mexican and Madagascar vanilla come from the same orchid species, small differences in farming, curing and chemistry lead to noticeably different flavors. Mexican vanilla imparts a more floral, fruity, mellow flavor, while Madagascar vanilla tends to be woodier and bolder. Mexican vanilla costs substantially more due its intensive production methods and premium quality. For everyday uses Madagascar vanilla works well, but for special recipes Mexican vanilla can provide an unmatched flavor and aroma that justifies the higher price tag. Whether you’re baking a birthday cake, preparing holiday pies or simply want to add a touch of luxury to everyday life, Mexican vanilla is a worthwhile splurge for any kitchen.