Vanilla Ice Cream: Not So 'Vanilla' After All
Jeni’s Splendid Ugandan Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. Photo credit: Stacy Newgent
"Tahitian vanilla beans. What are those? How are they different from ‘normal’ vanilla beans?” This question, posed by one diner, was met with five shrugs, one from each person seated at the table.
Jeni Britton Bauer to the rescue!
“I’ve been surrounded by vanilla for 20 years,” the owner of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and author of the new Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts told us. “I’m surrounded by vanilla at this exact moment!” (At least a handful of vanilla beans graces her desk at all times, we discovered when we called her.)
“The first step is to start thinking of vanilla as unique,” she said. “Different vanillas are unique, just like different kinds of chocolate. Below is Britton Bauer’s breakdown of the most popular kinds of vanilla ice cream you’ll see in the freezer aisle, so you can enter the supermarket well-equipped on your next trip.
French vanilla: This is a style of ice cream, not a kind of vanilla. Usually, said Britton Bauer, French vanilla doesn’t have vanilla beans in it, just extract, and it’s made using egg yolks. “It’s more of a custard, for that reason; kind of a creme brûlée vanilla.”
Vanilla: “Good vanilla ice cream will be made with both vanilla extract and vanilla beans,” said Britton Bauer. The former is steeped in alcohol and the latter is steeped in cream. “It’s like a one-two punch: more top notes in the extract and smoky base notes from the cream,” she said. And know that just because you don’t see the black bits of vanilla bean doesn’t mean the ice cream wasn’t made with fresh vanilla beans (although much of it isn’t, so take a peek at the ingredient label). As for where the beans come from, if it’s not indicated in the title or somewhere on the carton, assume it’s a geographical mélange.
Vanilla bean: “The bean fleck thing came from Bassetts in Philadelphia; it was one of their innovations,” says Britton Bauer of America’s oldest ice cream factory. How exactly Bassetts makes their vanilla bean ice cream she doesn’t know, but in this case the use of vanilla beans is visible. She suspects they use vanilla bean powder. “Basically, a big company takes every last scent out of the vanilla bean; it pulverizes the super dried-out beans and then packages them,” says Britton Bauer. In that case, all the flavor is coming from extract, and the powder just gives the ice cream texture and that speckled appearance.
Mexican vanilla bean: All vanilla originated in Mexico, said Britton Bauer. Cortés, the Spanish explorer, brought them to Europe in the 16th century along with chocolate. Mexican vanilla beans are sweeter and smaller than others, she said.
Tahitian vanilla bean: Depending on their new region’s climate, imported Mexican vanilla beans will grow into bigger versions. This is the case with Tahitian beans. “[The ones] I’ve worked with are big and juicy and softer, rounder in flavor,” says Britton Bauer.
Madagascar vanilla bean: “Madagascar vanilla beans are known as the world’s most prized,” says Britton Bauer, although she would beg to differ (see below). They’re stronger in scent—smokier than Tahitian beans—but more petite in size.