Vanilla is a spice derived from the fermented beans of a tropical orchid native to Mexico and Guatemala. Its use dates back to the Mayans and Aztecs who infused a special drink made of water, roasted cocoa beans and spices with the mellow flavor of vanilla beans.
Vanilla flavored drinks made with cocoa and spices were first encountered by Europeans in 1519 when Hernan Cortes was served a vanilla infused cocoa drink during an audience with Aztec ruler Montezuma. The conquistadores introduced Spain to “hot chocolate” with vanilla, and it became a fashionable drink for the rich across Europe.
Spain’s monopoly on vanilla was not relinquished until Mexico’s independence in 1810 when plant cuttings where brought to botanical gardens in France and the Netherlands. The Dutch started vanilla cultivation on Java (Indonesia), whereas the French introduced the plants to the island of La Reunion, which was then called Ile Bourbon – hence the name “Bourbon vanilla”.
Attempts to grow the plants outside of Mexico and Guatemala failed for the longest time, because they can only be pollinated by specific bees and humming birds native to Mexico and Central America. In 1841 a young slave on Ile Bourbon finally discovered the secret that would eventually allow large scale cultivation of vanilla orchids, hand pollination.
Today, three types of vanilla orchids are relevant for the production of vanilla. True vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), Tahitian vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis), and Guadeloupe vanilla (Vanilla pompona).
True vanilla is native to Mexico and Guatemala. Today only a small amount of it is actually grown in Mexico, with Madagascar and Reunion supplying the majority of the world’s vanilla. Vanilla from Madagascar and Reunion is sold as Bourbon vanilla and has the truest and most intense vanilla aroma, whereas Mexican vanilla is weaker with a more mellow taste.
Tahitian vanilla is grown in the South Pacific region and is closely related to Vanilla planifolia. However, it contains less vanillin (the chemical responsible for the vanilla flavor) and has a more flowery aroma. It is mainly used for the production of perfume.
It is native to Central and South America and is mainly grown in the Caribbean. Its flavor is similar to Tahitian vanilla, and like its cousin from the South Pacific it is used as an ingredient in perfume.
Vanilla orchids are grown on plantations, and the pods, which can reach up to 30cm in length, are harvested right before they ripen. The pods are then treated with hot water or hot steam in order to stop any vegetative processes. After being treated with hot water the pods are fermented in air tight containers, which can take up to four weeks.
The chemical processes taking place during water treatment and fermentation give the seed pods their characteristic flavor and it is only then that the pods actually smell and taste like vanilla. Hand pollination together with a very time and labor intensive production process make vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.
What To Look For
The quality of vanilla “beans” varies greatly depending on where the plants are grown and how they are processed. Good quality vanilla pods have an elastic and leathery texture with no split ends. Dry, hard pods are a sign of poor quality and should not be bought. Crystals on the outside of the pod do not indicate an inferior product, but are a natural chemical reaction. They have no effect on the taste of the vanilla.
Bourbon vanilla (vanilla planifolia) grown on Madagascar, Mauritius, and La Reunion is usually superior in quality and taste to vanilla grown elsewhere in the world. Some people prefer Mexican vanilla, but its taste is weaker and not as aromatic.
The use of vanilla pods for cooking is always preferable as only the “beans” guarantee a true vanilla taste. Pure vanilla extract and vanilla sugar made with real vanilla “beans” are good alternatives if whole pods are not available.
Pure vanilla extract
Often called vanilla essence, it is made by macerating vanilla pods in alcohol. Sugar may be added. It has a pretty much indefinite shelf life and is commercially used in everything from ice cream to cake.
Vanillin, which occurs naturally in vanilla pods can be synthetically produced and is widely used to flavor chocolate, pudding, ice cream, etc. The cheap production of synthetic vanilla has made it the favored choice for the food industry. However, vanilla pods contain dozens of other flavors besides vanillin, giving them a unique flavor that cannot be artificially reproduced in the lab. Synthetic vanilla is therefore a vastly inferior product compared to the true vanilla flavor from the pods.
How To Use It
Vanilla is one of the most popular and commonly used spices in the world. It is typically used for sweet dishes such as ice cream, cakes, pastries, cookies, various deserts, and to flavor chocolate. The biggest end user of natural vanilla is Coca Cola.
The seeds and the oil surrounding the seeds as well as the pod itself contain the highest concentration of flavor. For maximum aroma, cut the pod lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and use them along with the entire pod. The pod and seeds can be boiled and steeped in milk or cream to lend sweet dishes a lovely vanilla flavor. To make vanilla sugar, put a whole pod in an air tight container with sugar and let sit for a few weeks. Stir every once in a while to evenly distribute the vanilla flavor. The same method can be used to flavor coffee and tea as well.