sensual, magnificent... these are words that can sum up the smell
of a tropical pod known as vanilla.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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)
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.
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
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:
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.
extract is finished, pour into smaller bottles and label
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
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!
(Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid
- Laurence A. Marschall)
- Beautiful Vanilla recipes!
Please make sure
to visit Sharon's web site: