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.
- Vanilla beans (pods): Depending on origination, pods will range in length from 6-12 inches. Some are slender; others are thick. They will generally be dark in color. Taste among species is different, although Madagascar and Mexico beans are very similar.
- Pure vanilla extract (or essence): This naturally extracted product is also aged for maximum flavor. Bean quality may vary. Extract contains alcohol per FDA regulations.
- Vanilla paste: Contains no alcohol, easy to dissolve, and has same strong flavor as extract.
- Vanilla powder: Quick-dissolving with no sugars or alcohols.
- Vanilla flavoring is a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients.
- Imitation vanilla contains additives and synthetic, rather than true vanilla. This is not altogether inferior and many cooks prefer it.
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.
- Wrap vanilla beans securely in plastic or wax paper, place in an airtight container, and keep in a cool, dry spot.
- Refrigeration will cause beans to dry out while excess moisture will accelerate mold growth. They will remain fresh for about six months.
- Don’t mistake mold for crystal formation. Crystals are shiny and edible. If actual mold develops, discard the bean.
- Pure vanilla extract can last indefinitely and does not require refrigeration. Older products may actually improve in taste.