Madagascar and Indonesia are the world’s largest producers of vanilla. Madagascar and the West Indian island of Réunion (previously called Bourbon) produce Bourbon or Madagascar vanilla. These pods produce the rich flavor that you most often think of as “vanilla.” Tahitian vanilla is derived from a plant hybrid that is grown in the Philippines. While Tahitian vanilla has a desirable flowery and fruity flavor, it is susceptible to breakdown by heat. The sensitivity of Tahitian vanilla to heat is particularly crucial, as part of the curing process of the vanilla bean is to heat the pod, which promotes the browning reactions necessary to form mature vanilla flavors. Mexican and Indonesian beans also have a more subdued vanilla flavor and smoky or wine‐like aroma than do the Madagascar/Bourbon pods.
When you cook with a vanilla pod, rather than vanilla extract or flavoring, the food has a much more interesting and complex flavor. Why? Most of the vanilla flavor resides in the sticky material inside the pod, as well as in the small black bean seeds. How do you work with a vanilla bean pod in the kitchen? Slice down the length of a bean pod, scrape out the sticky black material and seeds, and include the combination of scraped seeds and the bean in the recipe.
This is particularly delicious when you are making a dish comprised of milk or cream. Because the compounds that provide the flavor and scent of vanilla are more soluble in fat and oil than water, the fats in milk solubilize the vanilla flavor molecules, leading to wonderful concoctions like vanilla milk or vanilla bean ice cream. An interesting additional use of unused sliced pods is to submerge the opened, uncooked pods into a closed container of table sugar; this creates a rich, vanilla‐scented sugar that is worthy of baking and candied treats.