An orchid plant – the only one that bears edible fruit among more than 35,000 orchid species - produces vanilla. The process of growing vanilla beans is labor intensive, which explains the high cost.
When the plant matures at three years, it flowers for just one day. In that time, it must be hand-pollinated. The plant will not bloom for another year. When the bean is removed nine months later, it must then undergo several months of drying and fermenting.
The vanilla plant originated in Mexico. First the Aztecs and then the Spaniards appropriated the wonderful fragrance and edible properties. As popularity spread across Europe, it flavored the drinks of royalty.
Madagascar and Tahiti are the largest vanilla producers.
Mexican products, with few exceptions, may contain a toxic ingredient called coumarin as well as red dye (both are outlawed in the U.S.). Also, avoid products manufactured in the Caribbean or South and Central America.
Most cooks prefer the Bourbon-Madagascar bean.
Beans should be pliable and have a shine.
If your recipe requires seeds, buy thicker beans for greater quantity. Slice pods lengthwise to open.
Not all pods are closed. Partially split pods are acceptable, but no more than a third of the way through.
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