The best quality vanilla beans regardless of where they are coming from are dark skinned, soft and pliable.
They should have a rich aroma. You have to avoid beans with very little scent and beans which are smoky, brittle, dry or mildewed.
Bourbon beans from Madagascar and the Comoros are described as being creamy, and sweet, with vanillin overtones. When selecting vanilla beans, choose plump beans with a thin skin to get the most seeds possible. To test, gently squeeze the bean between your fingers. Pods should be dark brown, almost black in colour, and pliable enough to wrap around your finger without breaking. If the beans harden, you can soften them by dropping into the liquid of your recipe.
Bourbon beans may develop a frosting of natural vanillin crystals over time and it indicates that the beans are high in natural vanillin and are very good quality. These crystals are quite edible and very flavourful. If you are uncertain whether the beans are covered with crystals or mildewed, take them into the sunlight. The crystals are similar to mineral crystals and will reflect the sun's rays, creating the colours of the rainbow. Mildew, on the contrary, will be dull and flat in the light, and may also not smell very nice. If the bean is mildewed, throw it away as the mildew will spread to uninfected beans.
When stored correctly vanilla beans may be kept for up to 2 years. However we recommend buying quantities of beans that you will use within a year.
Use the strongly aromatic beans whole or split them, to get more flavour from the thousands of tiny seeds inside the pods.
Vanilla beans will keep indefinitely in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. Don't refrigerate beans as this can cause them to harden and crystallize. In the humid tropics where beans are grown, they are wrapped in oiled or waxed paper and stored in tin boxes.
Vanilla beans are graded by the growers by their quality. Generally it is not possible to compare grades between two different vanilla types, for example between Tahitian vanilla and Bourbon vanilla. However within one type it is an important factor. The top grade is grade A, followed by B and so on.
Vanilla beans are also graded by their colour. The best quality is invariably classed as 'black' although they are actually very dark brown. They are then graded down to red/brown which is the lowest quality.
Vanillaetc only use the best Grade A black vanilla pods..