VANILLA is a sweet aromatic orchid grown to about
12 feet high with clusters of fragrant flowers. It was
named by the Swedish botanist, Olof Schwartz, "Vainilla" from
the Spanish for "little sheath" and anglicized to Vanilla.
Vanilla is widely used for its flavor in baked goods
and for its fragrance in soaps, lotions, and candles.
Its medicinal properties reduce stress and promote calming,
and it is thought to be an aphrodisiac.
Around 1000 A.D. the first people to have discovered
vanilla were the Totonaca tribe, native to southeastern
Mexico in the area now called Vera Cruz. The Aztecs conquered
the Totonacas and also came to share their belief that
the vanilla bean was the food of the gods.
In 1518, Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez met Emperor
Montezuma while on a search for treasures in the new
world. Cortez was served a drink of cacao flavored with
vanilla called tlilxochitl. He at immediately fell in
love with its aroma and rich flavor, and he took bags
of cacao and vanilla beans back with him to Spain. Within
a short time Spanish chefs were making vanilla-flavored
chocolate for the wealthy and powerful.
Until the latter part of the 19th century Mexico was
the sole producer of vanilla, but in the early 1800's
the French took cuttings of the vanilla orchid to the
King's garden in Saint-Denis on Ile de La Réunion.
The name Bourbon Vanilla for Vanilla Planifolia comes
from Ile de Bourbon, the name of the island of Réunion
when it was ruled by the Louis kings of France, whose
surname was Bourbon. The plants flourished however, no
pods grew because of the lack of a small bee native only
to Mexico to pollinate the flowers.
In 1837 the Belgian botanist Morren was the first person
to succeed in artificially pollinating the Vanilla flower.
In the following year Neumann, a French botanist, succeeded
in repeating a successful artificial pollination. However,
on La Réunion Island, the process did not work.
In 1841 Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave, discovered
the technique of manual pollination. In 1848 Réunion
exported to France about 50 pods (175 grams). Vanilla
cuttings were soon taken to the neighboring islands of
Madagascar, Comoro and Santa Maria and by 1898 about
200 tons had been produced by the French colonies. England
and Belgium soon began cultivating the vanilla orchid
in many of their own colonial possessions around the
Successful plantations were also established in Indonesia
and Tahiti. By the early 20th century Madagascar gained
control of the world vanilla market and before long Madagascar,
Comoro and Reunion produced 80% of the world’s
vanilla supply, with 20% produced in India, Tahiti, Uganda,
Papua New Guinea, and Tonga. Mexican vanilla, revered
as the best, is scarce outside Mexico, since their harvest
produces only enough for the domestic market.
Creating the exquisite flavor
Vanilla is considered to be the most labor intensive
of all agricultural products. The entire process of vanilla
cultivation, pollination and harvesting is done by hand.
Because of the remote locations of the growers no chemical
fertilizers or pesticides are used.
Many of the vanilla growers are in regions with no roads making
it impossible to truck in chemicals. The ripe vanilla bean
lacks flavor and aroma. During the curing process, glucovanillin
created during the ripening of the vanilla pod is converted
to glucose and vanillin. The cured beans vary in flavor and
fragrance depending on where they are grown in the world, the
soil, climate and environmental differences as well as the
differences in curing processes. Vanilla like gourmet coffee
is a product of its environment in that its ultimate flavor
is affected by the other plants and minerals in the surrounding
The Vanilla Species
Madagascar Bourbon (planifolia) is the most common
bean used in extracts. Bourbon beans from Madagascar
and the Comoros are described as having a creamy, hay-like,
and sweet aroma, with strong vanillin overtones.
Mexican vanilla beans, also planifolia, are very
similar to Madagascar beans though they have a mellower,
smooth quality and a spicy, woody fragrance. Dark chocolate,
dairy desserts, beverages, poultry and meat are complemented
by Mexican vanilla. Madagascar and Mexican vanillas both
provide the familiar natural vanillin flavor that we
associate with vanilla ice cream and other vanilla-flavored
desserts and beverages. They are the gold standard of
the vanilla market.
Tahitian vanilla beans (vanilla tahitensis) originate
from planifolia stock that was taken to Tahiti, where
it mutated in the wild. It is now classified as a separate
species (Vanilla tahitensis) as it is considerably different
in appearance and flavor from Planifolia vanilla. The
beans are often described as smelling like licorice,
cherries, prunes, or red wine. Tahitian beans offer a
more floral fruity flavor most suitable in savory and
Vanilla Bean Products
Extract: Cured beans can be used in their whole
or ground form, they are most commonly used for producing
extracts, flavors, oleoresins and powders. Pure Vanilla
extract is the only flavor with a US FDA standard of
identity in the Code of Federal Regulations. The Code
requires a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per
gallon of 35% alcohol and 65% water mixture(80 proof).
Vanilla Extract is made by percolating chopped vanilla
beans in ethyl alcohol and water. This process is also
referred to as macerating the vanilla beans. The process
is usually kept as cool as possible to minimize flavor
loss, although some manufacturers feel that there must
be some heat to create the best extraction. The extraction
process takes about 48 hours after which the extracts
will mellow in the tanks with the beans from days to
weeks, depending on the processor; next they are filtered
into a holding tank where the amber-colored liquid extract
remains to age until being bottled. Optional ingredients
include glycerin, corn syrup, sugar and propylene glycol.
Most companies use a consistent blend of beans, sometimes
from several regions, to create their signature flavor.
Natural Vanilla Flavor: a mix of pure vanilla
and other natural substances other than the vanilla bean.
It usually is made with a glycerin or a propylene glycol
Vanilla-vanillin: a mix of pure vanilla extract
and synthetic substances, most commonly vanillin.
Vanilla powder: a mixture of ground vanilla beans
and vanilla oleoresin combined with carbohydrate carriers
and flow agents.
Imitation Vanilla: a mixture made from synthetic
substances, which imitate the vanilla smell and flavor.
The two most common sources for synthetic vanillin are
Lignin Vanillin, a by-product of the paper industry,
which has been chemically treated to resemble the taste
of pure vanilla extract, and Ethyl Vanillin, which is
a coal tar derivative and far stronger than either Lignin
Vanillin or pure vanilla. Because vanilla is in such
demand, and because it is so expensive, synthetics are
often used instead of natural vanilla - 97% of vanilla
used as a flavor and fragrance is synthetic.
Real Vanilla, with its complex flavor profile,
can be incorporates into a wide range of foods. In many
regions it has specific uses like smoothing spicy sauces,
to flavoring cookies, fruit and Crème Bruleé.
It is one the most utilized flavors in recipes. Vanilla
harmonizes very well with many other flavors and is used
not only as stand-alone flavor, but also as a component
of a complex flavor profile. Vanilla acts as a flavor enhancer
to boost other flavors.