While vanilla is sometimes used as a synonym for “plain” or “ordinary” the vanilla bean and plant are actually quite extraordinary. From their origins in faraway places to the taste and flavor, both the extract and the beans have an intriguing story. Here’s (almost) everything you need to know about one of the most costly spices in the world. You’ll never look at your favorite cookies or ice cream in quite the same way again.
Where does vanilla come from?
Vanilla originated in Mexico, whence it was brought to Europe by the Spanish. The name is derived from a Spanish word meaning “little pod” and refers to the beans where the flavor is found. It became a popular food flavoring among the wealthy in Europe. It was in France that Thomas Jefferson discovered it, when he was the U.S. ambassador to that country. Jefferson brought the flavor back with him some time in the late 1700s, beginning a love affair that shows no signs of ending.
Nowadays the plant is grown in various locations around the world, with the major producers being Madagascar, Indonesia, India, Tahiti, the Tonga islands and Mexico. Each type has a unique flavor, making it suitable for different purposes in the kitchen. The most highly valued bean comes from Madagascar, and is known as Bourbon, as was this island in the Indian Ocean. Madagascar Bourbon has a sweet, mellow flavor with staying power, making it suitable for use with rich foods.
How is vanilla flavor made?
The vanilla plant is classified as an orchid, a species that includes about 25,000 varieties found around the world. There are about 10,000 hybrid varieties of orchids as well, but the vanilla plant is the only one among all of these that has edible fruit. It’s actually a climbing vine with small white flowers, with a green tinge. The flavor is found in the beans, which grow in a pod resembling a string bean.
The pod and beans are dark brown in color. The favor can be used in the form of vanilla extract or the beans themselves, which are ground to add to various recipes. The whole process of cultivating and harvesting the plant is done by hand. This is why it’s the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron. Because natural vanillin is so expensive, synthetic versions of this flavor have been developed.
Extract or beans: which should you use?
While the synthetic version is less expensive, it has an artificial flavor with a bitter aftertaste. This is why serious cooks prefer to use natural vanilla extract or whole beans. The extract is great for use in cookies, cakes and other baked good where it adds taste without dominating the other ingredients. Ground vanilla beans are best used in puddings, custards and ice- cream, where the strong taste defines the dessert.
Whole vanilla beans are popular with home cooks, though they must be stored and handled properly to maintain the flavor. The beans are normally sold in vacuum sealed packages, which should only be opened when you’re ready to use the beans. If there are any left, they should be resealed. While they should be ideally used within four to six months of purchase, vanilla beans can be kept for up to two years if stored correctly.
The fascinating story of vanilla shows that the plant and the flavor are not plain at all. Besides food, the flavor is widely used in cosmetics and body care products as well. The popularity of the flavor is due to the fact that it evokes both the familiar and the exotic, with its spicy, comforting scent.