Vanilla: 5 Countries, 5 Flavors

beth and emilyOn March 24th, 120+ pastry professionals—pastry chefs, sous chefs, cooks, bakers, business owners and students—gathered at ICC for the second Pastry Plus Conference. In addition to the morning forum, panel discussion and keynote address, conference goers selected three breakout classes to attend from nine different topics surrounding craft, innovation and workplace in the pastry industry. One of the first sessions of the day, Vanilla: Anything But Plain, dove into the world of one of the most beloved, and difficult to source, ingredients.

Beth Nielsen—3rd generation owner & Vice President of Culinary for Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, Pastry Plus contributing sponsor—as well as Emily Luchetti—Chief Pastry Officer of Big Night Restaurant Group and ICC Dean of Pastry—offered up their expertise on the complex flavors, agriculture, production and varietals of vanilla.

In this sold out session, attendees tasted five different vanilla varietals, generously provided by Nielsen-Massey, in a dessert that relies on prominent vanilla flavors—pot de créme (basically a créme brûlée without the brûlée)! The vanilla samples all came from countries near the equator including Madagascar, Tahiti, Uganda, Indonesia and Mexico. Below, we’re sharing what we learned about the countries producing vanilla & how this impacts the differences in flavor.


  • Vanilla is one of the world’s most labor intensive crops, second only to saffron.
  • Vanilla is the only fruit bearing orchid, but cannot pollinate on its own—every crop must be hand pollinated, or in the case of Mexico, have an indigenous bee to pollinate it.
  • The window for pollination is only 12-24 hours, one day a year!
  • Vanilla is grown within 10-20 degrees of the equator.
  • Similar to how the terroir of a vineyard affects a bottle of wine, the landscape of where vanilla is grown will give each bean a unique flavor.


Although Madagascar produces 75% of the world’s vanilla, Mexico is actually the birthplace of the vanilla orchid, also known as Vanilla planifolia Andrews. For centuries, vanilla could only be found throughout Mexico because of an indigenous bee called the Melipona, which is the only insect to pollinate the orchid flower that produces the fruit. Vanilla was finally introduced to the rest of the world when the pods were brought back to Spain in the late 1700s.

Mexican vanilla has flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and hints of spice—much like the delicious savory food from Mexico! This vanilla is great for fall flavors and pairs well with warmer spices.


In the late 1700s, vanilla was brought from Mexico to the island of Réunion in Madagascar. It took 50 years for vanilla to finally start growing consistently after a botanist realized the indigenous bees of Mexico were the ones pollinating the orchid flowers. After this was discovered, a Malagasy man perfected the method for fertilizing each flower by hand, which is still the method of fertilization today!

Madagascar vanilla is characterized by the familiar flavors that everyone recognizes it for—sweet, creamy and perfect in almost everything (yes, even savory food!)


Similar to Madagascar, Tahiti’s tropical climate is perfect for growing vanilla. In the mid 1800s, after a few years of various vanilla species being imported into the country, Tahitian Vanilla was born—Vanilla Tahitensis. While Madagascar, Mexico and Indonesia all produce the same species, the Tahitian variety are distinctly fruity and larger than other species.

Tahitian vanilla has distinct flavors of floral and fruity notes with a surprising punch of cherry at the end. Tahitian vanilla is great in heat-sensitive dishes.


Uganda is one of the most recent countries to start producing vanilla in the year 1940. While other countries in the world can only harvest vanilla once per year, Ugandan vanilla can be harvested twice per year in December and June or July because of the unique weather.

Ugandan vanilla has flavors of chocolate and is most similar to vanilla from Madagascar. This may be due to the similar processing that the two countries use.


Indonesia produces a product that is most similar to vanilla from Madagascar. This country has become the second largest producer of vanilla, second only to Madagascar. Indonesia focuses on quantity production and harvests all of the beans at once, which saves time and yields a greater crop.

Indonesian vanilla has unique smoky and woody flavors that pair well with chocolate. Indonesian farmers use a different, complicated process for curing their beans. While you usually have to add vanilla in at the end of cooking to prevent the fragile flavors from disappearing, Indonesian beans are great for high-heat cooking.

The next time you reach for vanilla in your spice cabinet, consider using one from a different country depending on the application! The signature characteristics of each can help to bring out different depths of flavor in your cooking.


Nielsen, Beth, and Emily Luchetti. “Vanilla: Anything But Plain.” Pastry Plus. Pastry Plus, 24 Mar. 2019, New York, New York.

Ruggiero, Jocelyn. “The 4 Kinds of Vanilla Beans to Know.” Food & Wine, 23 May 2017,

Spiegel, Alison. “It’s About Time You Knew Exactly Where Vanilla Comes From.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 6 Nov. 2014,

“Where Does Vanilla Come From? – Nielsen-Massey Vanillas.” Nielsen, 16 June 2018,

products to use

Sour Cream Shortbread Recipe

Did you know that French butter is often considered best for baking because of its low water content, resulting in a better texture for baking? Beurremont butter, a traditional French butter, is one of the only butters made in the USA that is high in butterfat like it’s French counterpart. Beurremont is made without aging the cream or adding cultures to it, giving it a sweet flavor. It’s also low in moisture, resulting in a rich creamy profile that’s perfect for cooking and baking. So perfect, Team USA uses it as their official butter in the Bocuse d’Or Competition—notoriously the most challenging cooking competition in the world.

Great for decadent recipes, or when you need an extra hint of buttery flavor, it works especially well in our Director of Pastry Operations’, Chef Jansen Chan’s, Sour Cream Shortbread recipe! As he puts it, “Buerremont Butter is a great brand to incorporate in many types of recipes; it has a complex culture flavor balanced with a rich butterfat taste.”

Learn how you can make this quick recipe below, and many thanks to our Pastry Plus Gold Sponsor Beurremont Butter and Paris Gourmet for their support.

You Will Need...

  • 2 cup butter, unsalted
  • 3 1/3 cup flour, all-purpose
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, scraped (or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 oz. sour cream
  • Additional sugar, as needed


step 1

Cut butter into cubes and keep at room temperature until firm, but not soft.

step 2

mix ingredients

Place butter cubes, flour, sugar and salt into a mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment.

step 3

Mix at a low speed until mixture is very fine and crumbly, about 7-9 minutes. The dough should be able to hold together as crumbs when squeezed together. There should not be any visible butter chunks.

step 4

Press the dough into a parchment lined half-sheet tray.

step 5

Wrap the sheet tray of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, about 2-3 hours, or overnight.

step 6

spread sour cream
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Remove from refrigerator and spread sour cream evenly on top.

step 7

bake in oven
Bake for an hour, or until medium brown on top.

step 8

sprinkle sugar

Sprinkle the top generously with sugar while the shortbread is still warm.


cut into squares
With a serrated knife, and while the shortbread is still warm, cut into two-inch square pieces.

step 10

Allow to cool and enjoy!