vanilla, with its wonderful aromatic flavor, is the most widely used flavoring
in pastries, confections, and other desserts. It is the second most
expensive spice in the world, next to saffron, and as much as flavor chemists
try with the glycoside found in the sapwood of certain conifers or from coal
extracts, the cheaper synthetic vanillas on the market today do not come close
to competing with pure vanilla. As Rosengarten in 1969 stated, imitation
vanilla lacks pure vanilla's "pure, spicy, delicate flavor and peculiar
learn about vanilla you start to appreciate why it is so expensive. It
begins with a celadon colored orchid, the only orchid of about 20,000 varieties
that bears anything edible. Native only to Central America it took until
the 19th century for botanists to figure out how it could be grown commercially
in other tropical climates. The problem was that this orchid, in order to
produce the vanilla pod (beans), needs to be pollinated by bees, Melipona bees
to be precise, or a species of hummingbird. And these species were only in
Central America. The second problem to commercial growers was that when
the orchid flower opens it does so for a very short time, less than a day.
If the flower is not pollinated by the bees in that short time, it will fall
off. So even though the bees were introduced to other tropical areas of
the world, commercial growers could not depend on the bees pollinating all the
open orchid flowers. It wasn't until "hand pollination" of the flowers was
developed that vanilla could be successfully grown commercially.
the fruit of a thick green orchid vine (v. planifolia) that grows wild on the
edge of the Mexican tropical forests. The vines, when grown wild, will
grow up to the top of
tall trees in the jungle. Commercially, the vines are pruned for a few
reasons. One, is that the vines will not flower until they stop growing.
And two, the vines need to be at a height where workers can reach them.
Once the vines stop growing they produce clusters of buds that eventually
develop into orchids, up to 1000 flowers for one vine. Not all the flowers
are hand pollinated though. They are thinned out so as to guarantee good
quality beans, albeit fewer in quantity. After hand pollination, the
flowers develop into long thin green pods or beans that can grow up to 12 inches
(30 cm) long. Average length is about 8 inches long. These tasteless
and odorless green pods are hand picked when they are still not ripe and then
the fermentation process begins. The beans are first plunged into hot
water and then the 'drying' and 'sweating' process starts. The beans are
dried in the sun during the day and then wrapped in the blankets at night so
they can sweat. This process can last anywhere from 2 to 6 months until
the beans become a very dark brown color and develop a white crystalline
substance (or frost) on the outside of the bean, called vanillin. The
vanillin is what gives the beans their wonderful flavor and aroma and these
beans are prized. At this point the beans are aged to bring out their full
flavor, and this can take up to two years. Once dried and cured the
vanilla pods need to be kept airtight to retain their wonderful flavor.
70 - 80% of the world's vanilla comes from the islands of Madagascar and Reunion
in the Indian Ocean where the plants were first introduced around 1840.
The Madagascar or Madagascar-Bourbon vanilla beans are often
referred to as "bourbon beans" because the French first planted the vine on the
Isle de Bourbon.
These beans have a smooth, rich, sweet flavor and are the thinnest of the
vanilla beans grown.
Mexican vanilla bean is a thicker and darker bean that has a smooth, strong,
rich fragrance and flavor. Some say they are the best. The one
problem is that some manufacturers of vanilla products in Mexico add coumarin,
which is banned by the FDA because it can cause liver and kidney damage.
So make sure you always buy Mexican vanilla products from a reputable supplier.
vanilla beans are the thickest of the three and almost black in color.
They are not as flavorful as the other two but are very aromatic, with complex
floral aromas, which make them popular in making perfumes.
is sold in different forms: extract and essence, pods (beans), powdered, and
Extract is the most popular way that vanilla is used by home bakers.
Vanilla extract is produced by steeping the vanilla beans in an alcohol and water
solution for several months, sometimes with sugar added, thereby producing a clear dark liquid with
a rich flavor that is highly aromatic. The FDA requires that pure vanilla
extract contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid and contain 35%
alcohol. This is called one-fold vanilla extract and is what you find in
stores. Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract is an
excellent vanilla that can be found in specialty food stores and by mail order.
There are two fold and three fold extracts, called essences, but these are very
strong and are mainly used by professionals. Do not add vanilla extract to
hot liquids as the alcohol evaporates, along with some of the vanilla flavor.
vanilla extract make sure it is labeled "pure". The imitation vanilla extracts are made with synthetic
vanilla (from glycoside found in the sapwood of certain conifers or from coal
extracts) and leave a bitter after taste. Products labeled Vanilla
Flavoring are a combination of pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla
use the whole vanilla bean the complexity of flavors and aromas of the
bean are released. In custards, milk, creams, syrups, and other liquids
they impart a wonderful flavor and their small dark seeds add dimension to your
dessert. Vanilla beans are most commonly sold in small plastic cylinders
in specialty grocery stores and health food stores. Look for beans that
are shiny and black, tender, plump and moist, preferably with the white powder
of vanillin on them. Never buy hard, dry and shriveled beans because they
are past their prime. To use; cut the beans in half lengthwise and
scrape out the seeds and pulp. Add this, along with the pod, to your
liquid and steep. The pods can then be removed, rinsed, dried, and placed
in granulated white sugar to produce what is called vanilla sugar.
sugar is when a vanilla bean has
been added to white granulated sugar or confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar.
The bean is cut in half and buried in the sugar, covered, and left for a week or
two to allow the vanilla to permeate through the sugar. This vanilla sugar
can be used in place of regular sugar and adds a wonderful vanilla flavor to
desserts. To make vanilla sugar place a cut vanilla bean into 1-2 cups
(200-400 grams) of granulated white sugar or confectioners sugar and store in a
covered container for a few weeks before using. One tablespoon of vanilla
sugar has the flavoring power of 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Vanilla Powder is
produced by grinding whole dried vanilla beans until powdery. The
advantage to vanilla powder is it can be added to warm liquids and the vanilla
flavor will not evaporate as it does with extracts. It can be found in
some specialty grocery stores or else by mail order.