The mystery and allure of fragrant, beautiful... Vanilla.

a l l  n a t u r a l  i n f o


Unlocking the Mystery of Vanilla

by Sharon Houghton    

     Exotic, sensual, magnificent... these are words that can sum up the smell of a tropical pod known as vanilla.
 You know that it's a wonderful scent and flavor.  But you may have wondered why it is so expensive.  There are reasons, and this article will unlock the mystery for you.  It will also reveal that if you buy truly all-natural vanilla, you're actually getting a bargain!

     True vanilla, not the synthetic version (which is used as flavoring 97% of the time) is actually part of the orchid family.  The pods are generally 6-8 inches long.  This is the only species of orchid that bears fruit.   Their botanical name is Vanilla planifolia or vanilla fragrans, and they are only sustainable in a 20 degree band around the equator.  The vine grows between 10 and 80 feet, and is usually sheltered under the canopy of the tropical forest to protect it from the wind.  This is so that the flower is not disturbed.  If the flower falls, the bean stops growing.  For the plant to bear fruit however, the flower must be pollinated.  In fact it must be done within 12 hours of opening.

     The Totonaca Indians, living in the Gulf Coast of Mexico, were the first to enjoy vanilla because it was indigenous to the area.  Many came from around the world throughout history and tried to cultivate the exotic plant elsewhere but failed.  The Mexicans held their monopoly for 300 years.  The reason was because Mexico had the only natural source of pollinators, tiny hummingbirds and a type of bee called the Melipona.    This mystery was solved by a Belgian botanist named Charles Morren in 1836.  Morren began pollinating the orchids successfully by hand.  Later, a former slave from Madagascar named Edmund Albius, developed a method of hand-pollinating the vanilla blossoms using a bamboo splinter.  This method is still used by the industry today.  The largest growers of vanilla nowadays are found in Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico and Tahiti.

     There are 3 main types of vanilla beans or pods:

  • Bourbon beans (having nothing to do with the alcohol of the same name) coming from Madagascar or Comoros have creamy, hay-like, sweet qualities, and are long and slender.  They have an abundance of seeds, and have a thick, oily skin.  The basic scent is strong vanilla flavor, perfect for perfumery or culinary uses.

  • Mexican beans are more mellow and smooth, yet are quite similar to the Bourbon beans.

  • Tahitian beans were the same as Bourbon beans originally, but after more than 50 years of mutation have become a shorter bean, more oily, and have less seeds.  Their aroma is more fruity and floral.  Their taste can be compared to licorice, prunes, cherry, or wine.


Why is Vanilla so Expensive?

     The next time you go to your grocery store, go to the baking department and check out the vanilla extract prices.  The difference between the synthetic version and the all-natural version is their list of ingredients, and their price.  Truly natural vanilla is made up of two things, alcohol and vanilla.  If you see any other ingredients, it is not 100% natural.  Natural vanilla costs more because it is the real thing, not an imitation.

      Is it worth the price?  I think so, and here's why...  Besides the fact that I think all-natural is always better, vanilla beans contain an estimated 400 trace components that greatly enhance the flavor.  The main component that gives it its predominant flavor is vanillin.  Synthetic (imitation) vanilla is made from a wood by-product that contains vanillin.  Another benefit of real vanilla extract is that as it ages, it only gets better in flavor and bouquet like a fine cognac.


     As I've already mentioned, this exotic flowering, fruit-bearing orchid can only be sustained in one small area of the world.  Vanilla is one of the most popular flavorings in the world.  So when you put the popularity factor (demand) with the scarcity factor, the price is bound to be on the pricey side.

Growing and Harvesting

    The Vanilla plant requires 3 years of growth even before it can begin to bear fruit.  As previously mentioned, this plant has a small window of time when it can successfully be pollinated.  Although the bean grows quickly, it needs a full nine months to grow to maturity.  Each pod has it's own rate of growth, thereby making a mass harvest impossible.  So the daily harvesting takes place over a 3-4 week time period.  Each pod must be hand-picked just as the pod begins to split.


     Another labor-intensive step is the curing process.  This process takes about 3 months.  When the pods are picked, they are green and look more like string beans.  As they dry and then ferment, they become dark and develop their rich, aromatic scent and have the perfect moisture content.  It takes 4-5 pounds of fresh green beans to make just one pound of the finished cured beans.


      Stories told about the corruption in the Vanilla trade are as exciting as any TV mystery.  This is an industry where murder, extortion and fraud exists due to it's rarity and desirability.  Secret missions where small planes fly into secret jungle hideaways, buyers with money-filled suitcases, and booby-trapped warehouses are not uncommon.  Some growers do what they can to hide their crops from the poachers, and will even brand the young beans with their own mark for future identification.

     The current annual demand for vanilla is 2200 tons.  The United States leads the way in using this flavoring, followed by Europe, especially France.  The average price for the good stuff in 2004 was $275 a pound.


Uses for Vanilla

     So how can you and I take advantage of this much sought-after, exquisite natural flavoring?  In Vera Cruz, the birthplace of the vanilla plant, they use vanilla pods to scent their bedding.  They just throw a pod or two in their linen closets and drawers to add the luscious scent.  They are also known to make animals and other shapes out of the beans and hang them on their rearview mirrors to scent their cars.  Are you getting any creative ideas of your own?

     The standard method of using vanilla of course is as a culinary flavoring.  The pod consists of an outer layer, and an inner core made up of seeds and pulp.  The seeds are the most flavorful component of the pod, and can be scooped out after making a slit down the entire length of the bean.  But do not throw away any other part of the bean because the entire bean is flavorful and useful in its own right.

     To flavor your coffee, dry a bean to a completely hardened state and drop a piece into your coffee grinder along with your coffee.  Another way is to place a fresh chopped up bean in your coffees auto-drip filter.  For liquid-based desserts, steep the bean in the liquid.  Cut the bean in half lengthwise, and scrape the seeds into the liquid.  You can add the skin and let it steep longer, but remove it before serving.  Many of your desserts will be enhanced with fresh vanilla.  Just use chopped, or scoop out the seeds and mix in with your recipes for hot beverages, pastries, ice cream, candy, puddings or custard.  Another way to add the flavor is by adding a bean to sugar which will make a vanilla-flavored sugar.  This sugar can then be added to your recipe.  Vanilla beans can be reused many times over when used this way (just clean in between uses).  The rule of thumb when adding vanilla as a flavoring is that one inch of a vanilla bean is equal to one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.  (See the 'Resources' below for a link to some vanilla recipes)


Buying and Storing Your Vanilla Beans

     There are many sources for buying your beans, especially on-line (See some links below).  What you'll want to look for are premium beans between 6-8 inches.  Longer beans are generally more favorable.  Ask for plump, supple, moist, glossy beans, with a rich aroma.

     Store your beans at room temperature in a sealed container away from bright light.  Never refrigerate them because they can develop mold.  You may see some white on the beans after storing them for awhile.  Take them out into the sunlight and look at them carefully.  If it is mold you will see that the white area has a dull, powdery appearance.  Separate the beans that have developed the mold and discard them.   If the appearance is more shiny and crystallized, it is due to a natural crystallization process which does not negatively affect the beans.  In the humid tropics where beans are grown, they are wrapped in oiled or waxed paper and stored in tin boxes.


Making Your Own Vanilla Extract

     Making your own vanilla extract can be rewarding because you know exactly what you have once you are finished.  Your friends will love receiving this as a gift too.

     You will need:

  • 3 Vanilla Beans

  • 1 Cup of Vodka, Rum or Brandy

     Begin by slicing the beans lengthwise to reveal the seeds and pulp.  Using the flat side of the knife or a spoon, scrape the seeds out.  Cut the bean into 2 inch pieces.

     Take a mason jar, or any jar with a lid that will hold at least a cup of liquid, and pour the alcohol into it.  Add the vanilla seeds and bean pieces.  Seal the jar, label it with it's contents and the date, and shake gently.  Put this into the refrigerator.  Make sure to gently shake the contents at least every other day for 4-6 weeks.  Strain out the pieces and seeds with a strainer or cheesecloth.

     To take this extract to the next level, add the same amount of vanilla to the same batch (after straining out the first vanilla pieces and seeds) and follow the same refrigeration directions for another 4-6 week period.  Now your vanilla extract will be even more robust and flavorful.

     When the extract is finished, pour into smaller bottles and label individually.


In Conclusion

     You can now see why vanilla is such an expensive and desirable commodity.  But I hope that you now realize that you really get what you pay for when you buy the real thing, pure natural vanilla.  I haven't really even discussed its use in perfumery.  But it is the same expensive proposition, real is better, and better is going to cost more.  I like to compare it to the use of essential oils, which are the actual plant essences, rather than a synthetic make-up which imitates the actual plants.  These imitators have a greater potential to create disharmony in the body.   Isn't it worth it to go the all-natural route when enjoying something as basic as scent and taste?  I hope that you try your hand at making your own batch of vanilla extract.  In fact, I recommend doubling the volume so that you can tuck half away to mellow with age.  Enjoy!



Resources: (Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid - Laurence A. Marschall) - Beautiful Vanilla recipes!


Please make sure to visit Sharon's web site:




All views expressed in the articles on the "All Natural Info" page are those of the various authors, they are presented here for your enjoyment and enlightenment. 

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