Aaaah...vanilla. Its aroma alone invokes thoughts of sumptuous sweets and warm, fuzzy memories of the family kitchen.
Join us in the kitchen to learn all about the origins of vanilla, how to make your own vanilla extract, and try some unique
A Little History
Vanilla was discovered in Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors, who dubbed it vainilla meaning "little sheath." They brought it to Europe, where it was quickly adopted. The first written
mention of vanilla was in 1662, in reference to an ingredient used with chocolate by the Native Americans. By the 19th century,
the great innovation of ice cream created a love affair with vanilla. Vanilla beans were once prized as highly effective aphrodisiacs,
and were so rare, they were used as tribute payments to royalty.
Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid plant, which grows in the form of a bean pod. Although there
are over 110 varieties of vanilla orchids, only one, Vanilla planifolia, produces the fruit which gives us 99 percent of commercial
vanilla. Another genus, the Vanilla tahitensis, grown in Tahiti, does produce fruit with a more pronounced aroma, but debatedly less flavor. Vanilla orchids are grown
in tropic climates, primarily Mexico, Tahiti, Madagascar, Reunion, Mauritius, Comoro, Indonesia, Uganda, and Tongo, with three-fourths of the world's supply coming from Madagascar.
In order to produce the fruit, the orchid flowers are laboriously hand-pollinated at a very specific time
of the day when the flowers are open during a short one-month flowering period. The fruit is not permitted to fully-ripen,
since this will cause the beans to split, thus losing commercial value. Hand-harvesting occurs four to six months after the
fruit appears on the vines.
Once harvested, the green beans go through a treatment process lasting another six months where the beans are soaked
in hot water, rolled in blankets to "sweat," dried on flats in the sun to evaporate the water, and then stored in a ventilated
room to slowly ferment and produce their unique aroma and flavor. Quality and aroma of the vanillin flavor varies by growth
location, since some areas produce beans with higher vanillin content. The resulting dark brown vanilla bean is usually 7-9
inches long, weighs about 5 grams and yields about 1/2 teaspoon of seeds. One-quarter teaspoon should be enough to flavor
a recipe for 4-5 people.
Extract or Flavoring?
Vanilla beans are expensive, retailing in some specialty shops for $2-3 each. The price
of pure vanilla extract is also obviously high, but varies due to the quality of the beans used. Pure vanilla extract should
have no sugar added, and will last forever, aging like fine liquor. Beware of cheap "pure" vanilla extract. If the bargain
seems to be too good to be true, it is probably an adulterated extract.
Most of the adulterated extract comes by way of Mexico, where extracts from the
tonka bean are added. Tonka beans, a member of the pea family, have a high concentration of coumarin, which has a stronger
vanillin-type aroma, but virtually no flavor. This makes it difficult for the average consumer to spot the fakes. Coumarin
was banned as a food ingredient by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1954 after tests showed liver toxicity in
test animals. Some studies also indicate coumarin derivatives are an anticoagulant or blood thinner. Yet, this adulterated
vanilla extract still makes its way into the US, since there is no testing done by customs inspectors and the addition of coumarin is not illegal
in Mexico. Look for a high alcohol content in unadulterated pure vanilla extract, since synthetics usually have
little or no alcohol. In order to meet FDA standards, vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon
during extraction and 35 percent alcohol.
Imitation vanilla is made from artificial flavorings, most of which come from wood byproducts which often contain
chemicals. Discerning palates find the imitation vanilla products to have a harsh quality with a bitter aftertaste. Twice
as much imitation vanilla flavoring is required to match the strength of pure vanilla extract. Vanilla flavoring is usually
a combination of imitation vanilla and pure vanilla extract.
Selection and Storage
When selecting vanilla beans, choose plump beans with a thin skin to get the most seeds
possible. To test, gently squeeze the bean between your fingers. Pods should be dark brown, almost black in color, and pliable
enough to wrap around your finger without breaking. If the beans harden, you can soften them by dropping into the liquid of
your recipe until softened. Cutting into a hard bean can cause the knife to slip and result in potential injury. If you discover
what looks like sugar crystals inside the pod, enjoy your find of pure vanillin crystals. Don't discard the pod, as it is
just as usable as the seeds. When used in sauces and such, add to the mixtures after they have briefly cooled in order to
Beans should be kept in a tightly-closed container in a refrigerated area where they should last up to six months.
Pure vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf-life, and actually improves with age like a fine wine or liquor. Vanilla powder
is also available, which should also be kept tightly-sealed, in a cool, dry place away from sun and heat. Whole beans that
have been used in sauces or other liquids can be rinsed, thoroughly dried, and stored for reuse.
In the Kitchen
Vanilla is used not only in pastries, desserts, and baked goods, but is also excellent with
seafoods. It is also a popular ingredient of coffees, perfumes, cigars and pipe tobaccos. Try adding a vanilla bean to a jar
of sugar for a uniquely-flavored sweetener. For a change of pace, add vanilla seeds to cottage cheese or flavored/plain yogurts
and let stand overnight for an added boost of flavor.
To make your own vanilla extract, chop 3 or 4 vanilla beans into small pieces, being careful to retain all the
seeds and crystals. Put into a clean jar and cover with about a half cup of Brandy liquor. Let steep for 1-6 months. Strain
and use with or without the pieces as your recipe defines. The mixture keeps indefinitely, and you can continuously add to
it. If you find the brandy flavor too strong and have more time, use one split bean steeped in 3/4 cup of vodka, letting it
stand at least six months.