Vanilla beans growing in Hawaii. They look a little bit like green beans.
(Photo from Huahua Farm)
Vanilla beans, dried and cured. You can get a bundle of 12 from Arizona Vanilla Company for $17.95.
- That's right. Vanilla plants aren't members of the Fabaceae with the majority of the beans in this series. Nor are they in the same family as coffee plants. They are members of the Orchidaceae family.
- There are 150 species of vanilla orchids (27 of which are native to Florida), but only 2 are grown commercially for the vanilla flavor.
- Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla fragrans both originate from the Gulf of Mexico. If either of these plants are grown in Mexico, they are called Mexican vanilla. If they're grown elsewhere, they're called Bourbon vanilla. There's also Tahitian vanilla, which is a hybrid of planifolia and fragrans, and is grown in -- you guessed it -- Tahiti.
- One reason that Mexican vanilla gets its own, distinct name is that the same plant's vanilla beans can taste very different depending on the soil it's grown in. Vanilla orchids growing as close as 20 miles from each other can yield different-tasting vanilla. Also, nobody cures their vanilla quite like the Mexicans do. People consider Mexican vanilla to be the best vanilla in the world.
Vanilla planifolia in bloom.
(Photo from Dragon Agro, a wholesaler of unusual plants)
- People now say "plain old vanilla," but it used to be considered a flavor suitable for Aztec royalty, an exotic plant, and an aphrodisiac.
- The first people known to use vanilla were the Aztecs. Spanish explorers in the 1500s wrote home about how the members of the royal court were flavoring their royal chocolate beverages with something from a black pod -- vanilla.
- The Spanish came back from their trip with a hot beverage of mixed chocolate and vanilla, which was not only supposed to quench your thirst and warm you up, but it was also believed to be an aphrodisiac.
- Even though the Spanish were the first Europeans to find out about vanilla, it was the French who started growing the plants. It took them a while to figure out how to grow them, mainly because only a certain type of bee that lives around the Gulf of Mexico will pollinate the orchids.
- But after a while the French -- it was a Belgian, really -- figured out how to pollinate the plants by hand, and they started getting lots of vanilla beans.
Vanilla orchids grown commercially on a large scale are pollinated by hand -- very gently, like this man is doing.
(Photo from Spice Lines)
- Not until the vanilla bean is slowly cured -- dried by the sun or over a wood fire -- that the enzymes are released and the fragrance and flavor emerges. So the French brought over some of the Totonaca people, natives from Mexico who were particularly adept with vanilla, to help the French figure out how to cure the beans. The Totonaca gave them some pointers, but they didn't tell them everything. So Mexican vanilla remains the finest in the world.
- The French started using vanilla for all kinds of stuff -- flavoring their tobacco, making perfume, and, taking another cue from the Totonaca, scenting their homes.
- When Thomas Jefferson came back to the States after having been an ambassador in France, he was disappointed that there wasn't any vanilla. So he had somebody in France send him a bunch of vanilla. Pretty soon, doctors in the states were prescribing it as a way to "stimulate the sexual propensities."
- Today, the majority of vanilla is grown in Madagascar and Tahiti.
Vanilla plants growing on posts. They remind me of pole beans.
(Photo from the Vanilla Company)
- Vanilla is the most labor-intensive crop in the world. The plants take three years before they mature and blossom. The beans have to stay on the vine for 9 months to ripen. Once harvested, they still have to be cured. The curing process can take weeks or even months depending on the method used. After curing, the beans are left to "rest" for another month or two to reach their full flavor.
Workers in Veracruz, Mexico (where the Totonaca are from) laying out vanilla beans on straw mats to be cured in the sun.
(Photo, and much more about the curing process, from Spice Lines)
- Because the beans require so much time and labor, they can be quite valuable. In Madagascar, where most of the world's vanilla is grown, vanilla rustling is a serious problem. Vanilla growers even stamp their beans with a brand like cattle ranchers do.
- Today, vanilla is used not just as a flavoring for foods, or a fragrance in perfumes or candles. It's also used in medicines to disguise icky flavors, or to disguise pungent smells in industrial products like paint, rubber tires, and cleaning fluids.
- However, because of the time and expense involved in producing vanilla, 97% of the vanilla used today is synthetic.
- To use whole, cured vanilla beans, split the bean lengthwise with a very sharp paring knife. Scrape the tiny black seeds (vanilla caviar) out of the inside of the pod with the edge of your knife and put them directly into your dish.
Scraping the vanilla seeds out of the pod.
(Photo from Food Mayhem, which has a recipe for Vanilla-Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake using an Oreo crust.)
- The pod has flavor and fragrance too. You can use the pod, as well as the seeds, in making sauces. Even after it's been cooked in a sauce, you can dry the pod and grind it up to put into ice creams or cookies. Or you can put the pod in with your sugar or coffee to provide extra vanilla flavor.
- If you manage to find uncured vanilla beans and if you keep them for a while, they'll eventually develop a white frost on them. If the white frost gets shiny in the sunlight and makes tiny rainbows, that it's vanilla crystals. Those crystals are highly flavorful bits of vanillin and they'll be mighty tasty. "Like black gold," one grower says of them.
- If the white stuff doesn't look shiny in the light but stays dull, it's mildew. Throw out the bean.
- Vanilla extract is made by chopping up vanilla beans and soaking them in ethyl alcohol and water. The FDA says that vanilla extract sold in the US has to be 65% water, 35% alcohol, and 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean must be used per gallon of liquid.
- Differences in extract come from which beans they use (they'll say Madagascar vanilla, or Mexican vanilla, for example), and whether or not they've used additives. Vanilla is naturally sweet so there's no need to add sugar or anything like that, but some companies do add corn syrup or sugar or caramel coloring.
This vanilla extract from Mexico costs $24.95 for 8 ounces. By comparison, the same size bottle of extract from Madagascar costs $19.95. But the Mexicans are kind of mad at Madagascar for driving down the prices. And everybody says that Madagascar vanilla isn't as good as Mexican vanilla anyway.
(You can buy a bottle of this extract from King Arthur Flour)
- The good thing about vanilla extract is that it will never go bad. In fact, if you keep it for two years, it will only improve during that time. The flavor stops getting better after that two years, but it'll never deteriorate from there.
- If you don't want alcohol in your vanilla extract, look for labels that say "natural vanilla." That means the vanilla has been soaked in glycerin or propylene glycol instead of alcohol. Doesn't mean anything about the vanilla itself.
- Vanilla flavoring or imitation vanilla are both synthetic vanilla. Most synthetic vanilla today is made as a by-product of paper manufacturing.
- You can make your own vanilla extract by soaking vanilla beans in vodka, brandy, or rum. It takes about 8 weeks.
The bits of bean are visible in this ice cream because it was made with vanilla paste, which is vanilla extract that's also loaded with vanilla seeds.
(Photo and a recipe from NoMU in South Africa)
That's it for the beans! I saved the best for last, didn't I?
USDA Plants Database, Vanilla Mill.
Karen Hursh Graber, Mexican Hot or Not, Vanilla: A Mexican Native Regains Its Reputation
Orchid Flower HQ, Vanilla Orchid
Boston Vanilla Bean Company, Vanilla Beans: Past and Present
Tha Vanilla Company, How to Choose and Use Vanilla Beans and Sex, Love, and the Vanilla Bean and All about Vanilla Extracts and Flavors
Spice Lines, Veracruz: In the Land of the Vanilla Orchid and Veracruz: The Secret of Vanilla's Aroma
Arizona Vanilla Company, How to Use Vanilla