Good question, reader Naomi. There definitely is, though unless you’ve got a truly stellar ingredient shop nearby, you pretty much have to take what you can get, bean-wise. Most larger grocery stores have stopped selling vanilla beans because so few people buy them. The small boutique shops here in Louisville generally stock only one type and that’s typically Bourbon — also known as “Madagascar” — vanilla from Nielsen-Massey. They’re the most common retail brand.
Madagascar vanilla is considered by many to be the “definitive” vanilla, though a lot of that is probably just good marketing on the part of Nielsen-Massey. It seems true to me that Madagascar vanilla is stronger and more aromatic, it gives off more exotic “high notes” as it were. That’s made it the go-to vanilla bean for pastry pros for decades. However in 2000 a typhoon all but wiped out vanilla crops in Madagascar and the nearby vanilla-producing islands of Réunion and Comoros. That caused prices to spike. It also gave pastry makers cause to take another look at the two other major vanillas: Mexican and Tahitian.
It’s said that Mexican vanilla has a deeper, smoother, truer vanilla flavor (it is the place, after all, where vanilla originated). Tahitian is thought by many to be very fruity. I personally don’t know and more than that don’t care very much. But that’s me, I’m no great connoisseur of vanillas. Others are, and that’s just fine. Among vanilla enthusiasts there are many, many sub-varieties: New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Tonga, Mauritius, Uganda, Réunion, Comoros…each named for the country or island upon which the particular cultivar grows. I’m sure if they were lined up in front of me I’d have a fun time tasting them and trying to pick out the differences, which I’m sure would be significant in many cases.
But the truth is I avoid using real vanilla beans wherever I can. I mean let’s face it, they’re expensive, second only to saffron in price-per ounce. When heated to any significant degree their fine aromas and subtle flavors are almost entirely obliterated, which makes them unnecessary for the vast majority of baking applications. Other times they sing. In custards especially, which is why I love real vanilla in pastry cream, pot de crème, panna cotta and such. When real vanilla is the star of a sweet, there’s no reason not to go a little nutty buying good stuff.
But day-to-day I’m an extract man, an imitation extract man more than that. And I’m not one bit sorry.