We tested five brands of vanilla beans sourced from Madagascar (the world’s largest producer)—three mail-order beans and two from the supermarket—wondering if the tides had turned since we rated them more than a decade ago. At that time, we couldn’t recommend any supermarket samples, finding them dried out and hardened, with few seeds and even less flavor.
To assess the differences, we sliced open a pod from each brand and scraped out the seeds. We then used the seeds in an uncooked cream cheese frosting and simmered both seeds and pods in dairy for use in a simple crème anglaise and in the base of our Vanilla Ice Cream.
This time around, in a surprising reversal, we found the supermarket beans not only improved, but also slightly better than the mail-order ones. While some variation can be expected from any agricultural product, most of the differences among beans likely came from how much of the flavor compound vanillin was developed during the curing process. For Madagascar beans, this involves dipping the pods in hot water to halt all growth, drying them in the sun, and placing them (wrapped in cloth and straw mats) in wooden boxes to sweat overnight. This cycle is repeated until a manufacturer decides that the beans are ready to be moved to holding rooms, where they rest until they’re shriveled, brown, and fragrant—an indication that they’re ready for sorting.
Bottom line: Although all of the brands were acceptable, we recommend splurging on our winner (at $15.99 for two, they’re more costly than the mail-order brands) when you want moist, seed-filled pods with complex flavor that tasters called exceptionally “robust” and “vivid.”
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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