Special Ingredients – Tonka Beans

just a bit of goodness goes a long way

I’ve long been intrigued by the lure of tonka beans, and given that they are off limits in the US thanks to the FDA its a clear cut case of desiring what you cannot have. I mean any spice described as tasting and smelling like a heady combination of vanilla, almonds, cinnamon and cloves sounds like perfection.

Tonka beans are actually the leguminous seed of the tonka tree (Dipteryx odorata), a large rainforest tree (growing to 120′ high) native to South America and are actually belong to the pea family. Their flavor is reminiscent of vanilla, and in fact the vanilla extract sold in Mexico just might include some tonka bean thrown in for good measure.

Tonkas Many Uses

Tonka beans have found great favor as flavoring in cookies, cakes and cream dishes.  Due to its incredible scent it has also found its way into perfume, soaps, candles, and tobacco.  It is commonly used in deserts in France (example from a culinary genius, Pierre), and at least one European candy company produces a tonka bean-flavored milk chocolate bar. In South America the bean is made into a paste and mixed with milk resulting in a sweet beverage, thought to have aphrodisiac properties.

temptation to get baking strikes

Some other recipe ideas include:

Zen Can Cook: White Chocolate and Apricot Cakes
Natural Selection: Tonka  Bean Ice Cream with Black Salt
London Eats: Chestnut Jam with Tonka Bean
Kalofagas: Tonka Bean Creme Caramel

Typical Preparations

Whole beans are soaked in rum and then air dried, resulting in the formation of coumarin crystals that make the beans appear frosted.  The bean is shaved as it is applied to foods.  The temperature at which it is served greatly affects its flavor.

A corner of France

Why they are not sold in the US

The beans contain coumarin, which is suspected of being toxic and carcinogenic it is banned from being used as a food ingredient in the US.    These bans are not in place in Europe or other parts of the world.   Whether tonka beans are in fact bad for you is a hot topic for debate; take this excerpt from The Atlantic.

“Before the law, refined coumarin was commonly added to commercial foods like cream soda, and used in synthetic vanillin. Extreme concentrations caused liver problems in rats (how unappetizing), and a rather overreaching ban on even natural sources of the compound was put in place. Coumarin has since been found to occur naturally in cinnamon, lavender, licorice, and a host of other commonly eaten plants—all of which would seem to be illegal under the regulation. Coumarin also accounts for the particular smell of fresh-cut grass and of fresh-dried hay (both in Alinea’s grass-gas scent-pillows, and on your front lawn).

The fear of coumarin in the U.S. stems from the oft-repeated saw that it is a blood thinner. It’s not. Coumadin® is the blood thinner trademarked by Bristol-Meyers Squibb. To make matters more confusing, Coumadin is made, in part, by changing the chemical structure of coumarin. Doctors who spoke with me (and who were terrified of being quoted) said there they’re aware of no anti-coagulant effect from naturally occurring coumarin in general, or tonka beans in particular. In nature, only certain rare decomposition fungi can convert coumarin to the anti-coagulant molecule. Cows grazing on (pounds of) such rotting sweet clover led to the discovery of the Coumadin drug.

Humans would need to eat an unreasonably bovine amount of tonka bean to fall ill. The shavings of a single bean is enough for 80 plates. At least 30 entire tonka beans (250 servings, or 1 gram of coumarin total) would need to be eaten to approach levels reported as toxic—about the same volume at which nutmeg and other everyday spices are toxic.”  source: The Atlantic – An Ingredient So Good It has to be Illegal

Further Reading

Spice Pages: Tonka Beans
eGullet Forums – Tonka Beans

___________________________________________________________________

So now that I whetted your apeitite, the pièce de résistance. Or put another way, the masterpiece, the magnum opus, the chef’d’oeuvre, the tour de force, the showpiece, the jewel in the crown.  Adrienne of Gastroanthropology has created this amazing and versatile cream that enhances anything it comes in contact with.  For those of you not yet familiar with the incredibly talented and generous Adrienne, I suggest you check out her blog immediately, especially, I might add if baking is your thing.  Adrienne is a trained pastry chef and culinary adventurer, originally from the Bay Area but now residing across the pond in the village of London.  I have a wonderful time following her culinary adventures.  Check out her post on tonka beans.

Gastroanthropologie's gift of goodness

Tonka Bean Mascarpone Cream

  • 4 oz mascarpone
  • ¾ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 egg white
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 tonka bean, finely grated

METHOD

Finely grate 1 tonka bean (microplane works great for this). Put cream in a small pot and add the grated tonka bean. Bring to a gentle boil and immediately remove from the heat. Set aside to steep. Strain after 1/2 hour – it is not necessary to use your finest mesh strainer – a little bit of tonka bean in the finished cream is desired. Chill in refrigerator for about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make an Italian Meringue with the egg white and sugar. To do this begin to whip egg white with a mixer. When you are close to stiff peaks put the sugar on to boil on medium heat. Add a bit of water to the sugar so it looks like wet sand. The amount of sugar is very small so it will come to a boil very quickly. Typically for an Italian Meringue you will want to melt the sugar to just past 230°F (it will continue to heat up once it is just off the heat and the sugar should be around 240°F when it hits the egg whites). For this recipe the small amount of sugar makes it nearly impossible to take an accurate temperature reading. I would forgo trying to take the temperature and just remove from the heat when all the water has boiled off and just the sugar starts to bubble. If it turns even the tiniest shade of carmel you have gone way too far. If the sugar has cooked too much it will just candy in the egg white, rather than incorporating within. In this case it is better to be cooked a bit under than over. As soon as just the sugar is boiling drizzle into the beating egg white.

If you feel uncomfortable making such a small batch of Italian Meringue or have never made Italian Meringue before I suggest that you can make a larger batch, say 4 egg whites and 1 cup of sugar. This will allow you to use a candy thermometer to take the temperature of the sugar. Use 1/4th of the final amount for this recipe and reserve the rest for Pavlova or for Baked Meringues.

Once you have completed the Italian Meringue set aside. In a bowl whisk together the mascarpone and tonka bean infused heavy cream. Once it is smooth and combined, fold in the Italian Meringue. Serve with fresh berries or with a chocolate dessert, such as chocolate tart or brownie. You can refrigerate this for up to a day, just whisk to recombine the cream.

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41 comments for “Special Ingredients – Tonka Beans

  1. February 1, 2011 at 2:59 PM

    I was shocked how potent they are, and can see why they are used for scenting things other than food. I was wondering what the white stuff on the beans were – thought it was sugar…

    I’m so glad you asked me to procure these for you way back when…I don’t think I would have otherwise explored with these.

    I’m still tweaking the white chocolate mousse recipe (with tonka bean), but when it’s done I will share that recipe too.

    Like most things illegal…
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..FÈVES de TONKA – Tonka Beans

  2. February 1, 2011 at 8:34 PM

    Wow, so interesting facts about the Tonka bean…have to admit that never heard of it before reading your post. Great photos, specially the corner of France :-) Thanks!

  3. February 2, 2011 at 6:21 AM

    It’s really too bad that they are not sold in US. I have heard of them and would love to try. The Tonka bean mascarpone cream sounds amazing!
    5 Star Foodie recently posted..Banana Cashew Hummus with Wonton Chips

  4. February 2, 2011 at 7:14 AM

    Fascinating and now you have whetted my appetite for that which I cannot have. (Until I go to Italy, maybe?) The France photo is indeed stunning. The tonka bean entices.
    Claudia recently posted..Moonstruck Chocolate

  5. February 2, 2011 at 7:23 AM

    I know I’m dating myself here but I remember when Tonka beans weren’t banned in the US. It may have been the 70s. They are all you say and more. Vanilla ice cream is just not the same without them.

    I won’t even go near the politics of food, LouAnn. I enjoyed your post way to much to taint it.

    Thank you so much for sharing…Bring Back the Tonka!!!
    Louise recently posted..Quick Links- Its Ina Gartens Birthday! Lets Celebrate!!!

  6. OysterCulture
    February 2, 2011 at 12:25 PM

    Gastro – It was a blast to do this post with you and see what culinary magic you produced. I was surprised that the ingredient that makes them illegal is equally concentrated in cinnamon. Go figure on the vaguries.

    Juliana – I had read so much about this spice, I was very intrigued and thanks to Gastro, had a reason to explore.

    5 Star – Maybe one day.

    Louise – Food politics is an interesting conversation especially regarding food such as this. I am on a few listservs that discuss this topic and your are right the politics alone could be a separate article.

    Claudia – Italy would probably be your best bet.

  7. February 2, 2011 at 2:32 PM

    What an intriguing post! I think I had heard of tonka beans before, but I never paid much attention. Now I want to try them! :) Have to see if I can find them when I go to Europe later this year…
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Leftover Makeover- Grilled Salmon Morphed into Salmon Salad Sandwiches

  8. February 2, 2011 at 4:46 PM

    I’ve been curious about tonka beans for a while, and now I’m really going to have to find a way to taste one! The mascarpone cream looks lovely. Lucky Adrienne to be able to use tonka beans!
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Peanut Butter Clouds

  9. February 2, 2011 at 7:43 PM

    I am insanely curious about this fruit of my youth which grows right here in the Caribbean but which is largely ignored by me mainly because my memories of the smell are not pleasant. I am intrigued that so many people think it’s the bees knees since honestly as kids we joked that the fruit smelled like old farts:-) Now you’ve made me curious it’s off to the market to see if my taste or rather sense of smell has matured:-)

  10. February 3, 2011 at 10:12 AM

    Now isn’t that interesting? Looks like we all need a reason to travel to have tonka beans. The flavor sounds like something that’d be worth the risk of trying. ha
    The Duo Dishes recently posted..The Duo’s Ethnic Exploration- Italian

  11. February 3, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    Leave it to the US to go to such extremes with likely insufficient data. Ah yes but we do crave most things unavailable to us. This gorgeous cream for example :)

  12. February 4, 2011 at 12:34 AM

    Damn the government…I’ll bet they just want Tonka beans for themselves!!! Urgh! it sounds awesome and I can’t get it! Next time score some for me too. ;-)

  13. February 4, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    I love Tonka beans – great feature, with the mascarpone. I have a whole jar full of them – must apply myself. Enjoy your weekend
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..A Week In The Life of Momofuku’s Ramen

  14. OysterCulture
    February 4, 2011 at 5:33 PM

    Andrea – You’ll definitely have to check them out, but you might have to hunt a bit. I tried a few cooking places in Dublin and they had no idea of what I was referring to. Maybe easier in other locals.

    Wizzy – Interesting that you do not like the aroma and it is used for it. I’d hate to think I bought a candle that someone thought smelled like an “old fart” =0

    Duo – Ha ha and I’ll use any reason to go travel so I am right there with you.

    MoS – I agree its the old rule about something just out of reach.

    Sophia – You may be right – conspiricy theory!!!

    KB – I’ll have to check out if you posted any scruptiious recipes, bet you have.

  15. February 5, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    Never heard of tonka beans before. Sounds like a very interesting ingredient. I must search if we have it in Turkey or not. I’m intrigued with the idea of tonka bean mascarpone cream. I must go check now what Adrienne wrote about it.

  16. February 6, 2011 at 3:42 AM

    I’ve never heard of tonka beans before either. I’m terribly intrigued and will be scouting for them at the weekend markets and every nook and cranny in the city.

    KM

  17. February 6, 2011 at 6:52 AM

    If it wasn’t for your increbile blog, I would have never known tonka beans existed. Would so love to try them, they sound incredible.And I am very willing to take the risk! Thanks for sharing Adrienne’s recipe. It’s certainly made my curiosity grow stronger! Incredibly educatins, as always!
    ruth recently posted..Italian Foodie Experience 3 Cooking for Mini Italians and Pseudo-Italian Meatballs

  18. February 6, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    As I commented over on Adrienne’s blog, I am very excited about this talk of tonka beans. I first tasted them in a chocolate bar (made by Irish-born UK-based chocolatier Gerard Coleman who is the man behind the wonderful Artisan du Chocolat (http://www.artisanduchocolat.com/)) – I was instantly hooked on the bitter almond / vanilla flavours. I’ve since had gorgeous tonka-flavoured truffles made by an local chocolatier here. I am also in possession of a number of tonka beans kindly sent to me by a UK blogger, though I was never quite sure how to make best use of them – until now that is – so thank you both for that!
    Daily Spud recently posted..Spud Sunday- Desert Island Spud

  19. February 6, 2011 at 9:53 PM

    I’m intrigued! I wonder how these tonka beans smell and how do they taste! It’s something that I will have to seek the next time I make my way to Europe.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Els Ultimate Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache Frosting

  20. February 6, 2011 at 10:05 PM

    I always learn something from you Louann! I’ve never heard of a tonka bean but am worried that it is one more instance of over-regulation in food.

  21. February 7, 2011 at 5:40 AM

    I think I had them years ago, but forgot how they taste already…gotta get some to try.
    Angie’s Recipes recently posted..Zürcher Geschnetzeltes – Chicken Zurich Style

  22. February 7, 2011 at 6:14 AM

    Hi – very interesting article about tonka beans. Another example of over-regulation? Perhaps! A lot of things are toxic if you eat them to excess, so seems a little over-protective, especially if you have to eat dozens and dozens of the things to see any ill effect.

    I have no such worries – been able to freely buy them in Europe in fancy food stores. The smell is divine, a light, heady aroma of marzipan, cinnamon, vanilla and tobacco. I’ve used them in quite a few things. A chestnut jam, custards and some tonka bean macarons (see here: http://londoneats.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/tonka-bean-macarons/). And we’re all still standing in my house!

  23. February 7, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    Interesting ingredient!!!I’ve never heard of tonka beans!

  24. February 7, 2011 at 10:12 PM

    I’ve seen this as an ingredient on a couple of dessert menus in the Bay Area now and then. Ahh, now I see why it isn’t more prevalent. How crazy of the FDA to ban it, when it seems like there’s no danger from using it to cook or bake with in reasonable amounts.
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..For a Heartfelt Time

  25. February 8, 2011 at 7:13 PM

    Every time I see something that is native to South America that I didn’t have in Brazil I think – Dangit! How did I miss that?! Not that everything in SA will be in Brazil, but I was so close! So many supposedly toxic things from other countries banned, yet so many toxic things on our grocery store shelves. I’ll take my chances with the tonka bean. :)
    Lori recently posted..Hummus with Almond Butter

  26. February 8, 2011 at 10:04 PM

    first off I am the proud owner of 4 (7oz) phin filters and two bags of coffee,from Trung..thanks for the video, I plan to use them for my mom’s bday brunch.

    lucky Adrienne to experiment with these beauties, her cream looks amazing..heading over to check her blog

    sweetlife

    ps, no worries about being tardy on the upside down cake post, we were without power..I closed comments..
    sweetlife recently posted..Sweet Life Presents Texas Talent Carl de Kock from Rio Queen Mission- Texas

  27. February 11, 2011 at 3:01 PM

    Louann, I don’t think I’d ever heard of Tonka beans – just the Tonka trucks I had as a child…it’s always fun to discover something new on your site (like the name of my Vietnamese coffee filter is a “phin” – so much faster than saying the “Vietnamese coffee filter thing”!).

    Is that photo from Colmar in Alsace-Lorraine? “La petite Venise” I recall looked a bit like that or somewhere else?

    Thanks,

    Dan
    IslandEAT recently posted..Triple Mushroom Barley Soup- Hot- Hearty- Healthful Fare

  28. February 15, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    I never seen a tonka bean before & I have never tasted it neither!! You have me intrieged !!! I am on the search for it!! Thank you, I learned something new today!

    Sorry that I haven’t been here lately but my husband & I baught just our 1st & only dream house!! It is in Mechelen, about 20 km north of Brussels! I wish you lived closer so that I could invite you for dinner because we will have a large garden & a brand new large kitchen with a 5 pîts gas stove!! Do you have any tips on cooking on gas? I haven’t done that yet!
    Sophie recently posted..Sophie’s spiced up gluten free chicken burgers

  29. February 19, 2011 at 9:26 AM

    i love tonka beans and for me they also taste tobacco with a mix of vanilla ; you can find recipes with tonka beans on my blog !!!
    cheers de Paris Pierre
    pierre recently posted..Chipirons basques- Baïona- amandines et bouillon Spigol

  30. February 20, 2011 at 5:17 PM

    Zerrin – Of course I’d be interested to see what your talented hand does with them, so please share if you find them/

    KM – Good luck, as I understand that vanilla is hard to find in your part of the world, maybe not hard but darn expensive.

    Ruth – Good luck finding them, may be easier now that you are back in the UK. So many yummy recipes out there to explore with.

    DS – Cannot wait to see you work your magic with them. As to creative ideas, I leave that to Adrienne, I just do the background.

    Christine – I know, a great excuse, if we needed one to head to Europe.

    Tammy – seems to be the case from everything I read

    Angie – good luck finding them,

    LondonEats – Thanks for stopping by and offering proof that you have not dropped over dead =) Your first recipe that I found sounded amazing, and this one equally so, please feel free to stop by with more delicious offerings.

    Erica – A lot of people had not, which is a bit of a shame.

    Carolyn – Agreed, not sure who to contact, and I am sure there are bigger issues to address.

    Lori – I am sure with all your travels you’ll be able to find a source soon and look forward to getting your opinion.

    Sweetlife – Woohoo, “now you’re cooking with Crisco” as my grandmother would say, Please let me know how it turns out, I am very excited.

    IslandEat – Ha, that was my first association too, must be the civil engineer in me, as I used those trucks to drive my Barbie dolls in.

    The picture is from Annency, and it was a jewel of a place to visit.

    Sophie – Congratulations on being a new homeowner, and of your dream house as well, how cool is that! I bet you could find some in Brussels, it just defies the imagination to think you could not get your hands on tonka beans there. Look forward to seeing what amazing foods you develop in your dream kitchen.

    Pierre – I know you are a genius, I linked to one of your incredible recipes in the body of this post. You are an inspiration.

  31. February 21, 2011 at 7:30 PM

    I kept reading recipes on French blogs with tonka bean and wondering why Us blogs never mentioned it; now I know thanks to you! mystery is revealed, regulations and regulations!!!
    this cream sounds heavenly. Will head on over and check her work.
    tasteofbeirut recently posted..Chicken muhammara Djej muhammara

  32. February 23, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    I love tonka beans and Annecy (I bought mine there although they are not illegal in Switzerland)! Your recipe is wonderful too.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  33. February 27, 2011 at 1:48 PM

    See, you just proved what the rumors are I spread about you LOL your great!
    Chef E recently posted..Chorizo-Vegetable and Kale Soup

  34. OysterCulture
    March 8, 2011 at 6:31 AM

    Taste of Beirut, if you’ve never enjoyed Adrienne’s wonderful posts you are in for a treat.

    Rosa – I feel like we’ve walked the same special streets.

    ChefE – Hehe

  35. Cindy
    April 14, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    I came upon this page today while searching for info on why tonka beans are banned in the United States. I’d frankly never heard of them, but a friend (a French food blogger who was once my exchange-student host mom) posted a recipe that included them, so off I went to research.

    Scrolling down your page, I came upon your “corner of France” photo, and immediately recognized the scene from Annecy; I once snapped a very similar shot while touring that lovely city. And here’s the fun coincidence: the person accompanying me that day–more than 20 years ago–was the very same person whose recipe sent me digging today for tonka bean info.

    Now what are the odds? ;-)

    Thanks for the fun small-world moment, and for posting the tonka bean info. I suppose I’ll have to visit my chef friend (www.mamina.fr, by the way) if I want to taste and smell this intriguing bean for myself!

  36. OysterCulture
    April 14, 2011 at 8:13 PM

    Cindy,

    Small world indeed. I loved my experience in Annecy and throw in a picture whenever I get the opportunity. I am not sure where you are at in the States, but I agree an opportunity to visit France is always good. Canada is another option. I hope you are able to try them and I’ll head to the blog site you so kindly recommended.

  37. Lynne
    January 11, 2012 at 1:41 PM

    In the UK you can buy Tonka Beans on Amazon – give it a try!!

  38. Meral
    August 9, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    I am from Rumania and the tonka beans are not forbided here. They smell very very elegant and they are so good with coffe. They are used for the fragrance in many French parfumes / see Yves Rocher

  39. Tao
    February 4, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    Actually you can buy it in the US, in oregon and you can order it online

  40. Doug Blakely
    November 15, 2013 at 2:20 PM

    I bought some online and the smell is not what you describe in the article, it smells closer to artificial vanilla bathroom deodorant. I am hoping that baking them in brownies might help but the smell is not very good at all.

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