Vanilla, possibly the most common ingredient. Let’s learn more about it…
What is vanilla?
Did you know that vanilla is the fruit of an orchid? It grows as a long and skinny dark brown bean pod. While there are 100+ varieties of orchids, only one, the vanilla planifolia, grows vanilla beans. I tell this so you aren’t wondering why the orchid in your kitchen isn’t giving you lovely vanilla pods.
About 75% of the whole world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar, but it is also grown and harvested Mexico, Tahiti, Reunion, Mauritius, Comoro, Indonesia, Uganda, and Tongo.
Like most fruit, beans and others produce, herbs and spices, the exact flavor of the vanilla and pod will depend on the geographic location it is grown in. Soil, water and weather conditions all impact this.
What does vanilla taste like?
It has been described as sweet, rich, and woody. There aren’t many flavors that it doesn’t complement well, perhaps maybe proteins and meat.
If you’ve ever had an orchid, you know that they are super delicate plants and pretty challenging to grow. So imagine trying to keep a whole crop of them alive!
Orchid flowers are hand-pollinated during a short flowering period that only happens once a day. They are harvested before being fully mature because if they wait, the pods will dry and split.
Instead, they are a little tacky and sticky when immature which helps them stay fresh and soft. This occurs anywhere from 4-6 months after fruit is visible. Initially green and plump, the beans go through another 6 months curing process when they turn brown and are then sold.
So if you’ve ever wondered why vanilla is so expensive, this is why. It is a wonder it isn’t more pricey!
Vanilla beans are long and dark brown, skinny and a little sticky. The most fragrant and flavorful part of the bean are the thousands of black speck seeds inside. I’ve seen them referred to the caviar of the pod.
You can scrape out the seeds or use whole pods to flavor dishes.
Vanilla beans are the second most expensive spice compared only to saffron, but are the most commonly used of the spices.
Types of Vanilla
Vanilla Extract– the most common form of vanilla is extract. Make sure you look for pure vanilla opposed to imitation vanilla, which is just a vanilla flavoring, not actual vanilla. It is made from vanilla beans sitting in vodka.
Vanilla Seeds– scrape out the seeds to make those lovely black specks in desserts, sauces and ice cream. You might also see them labeled vanilla paste. Others call them caviar.
Spent Pods– A spent pod is the vanilla bean pod after the seeds have been scraped out. These pods don’t have as much flavor, but since the process to harvest vanilla is so labor intensive, no one dares discard them. They are used in second rate ice cream and other lightly vanilla flavored items.
Imitation Vanilla- Can be used in certain recipes if the taste of vanilla isn’t too heavy. It is basically a man-made flavor and less potent. Sometimes people will use it for color purposes, for instance if they need something to be white and not tainted brown, they will use a clear imitation vanilla.
If the beans dry out, they can be rehydrated. Soak them in milk or warm water for several hours.
If a recipe calls for vanilla bean pods, you can use vanilla extract and vice versa, but a pod has higher flavor intensity, so use only a small amount.
The general rule is that 1 inch of vanilla bean is equal to 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.
You can use other extracts as well like almond, coffee and lemon in things like cakes and cookies.