Local vanilla taste test: Hawaii and Maui-grown versus imported

Left: vanilla bean solutions and in spritzers; right: vanilla bean panna cotta

Is local always better? In terms of taste, not always. (Though I admit, taste is sometimes only one of many considerations when I buy ingredients.) Lately, I’ve been seeing more locally-grown vanilla on the shelves, and I wondered: How do local beans compare to imported ones? I enlisted help from Michael Moorhouse, pastry chef at The Kahala Hotel and Resort for the best way to taste vanilla beans. Here are our methodology and results, just in time for the holiday baking season:

We collected four beans: one from Hawaiian Vanilla Co. on the Big Island, one from Maui Preserved, as well as a bourbon vanilla bean (organic and fair trade) and a Tahitian variety of vanilla bean (the latter two grown in Indonesia).

We tried each of the beans two ways: in a vanilla solution (two grams of each bean were steeped in water and vodka), and in a vanilla panna cotta (each made with one gram of bean).

The results
Both the Big Island and Maui beans packed more flavor. The Tahitian was the weakest, and then the bourbon—the vanilla aroma was there, but the Maui and Big Island beans were unmistakably stronger. The Maui bean was the strongest, almost sharp, and the Big Island one a little rounder.

Our test wasn’t totally scientific—the beans were likely of varying ages—but it’s possible that the local ones are fresher, and the stronger vanilla taste less a result of the vanilla variety and where and how the bean was grown, but instead a function of how long it had been stored.

Note: Since we picked up our beans, Hawaiian Vanilla Co. has run out of whole beans until 2015, so if you’re looking to slip some local vanilla in your baking, your best bet would be Maui Preserved, available at Whole Foods. (Five beans for $15)