Rajan is a botany and chemistry major. He has worked as a poultry breeder for 23 years, breeding layer and broiler parents.
Latin Name: Vanilla planifolia
Vanilla is a flavour extracted from vanilla beans of the only edible fruit-bearing orchid out of about 25000 orchid species. It is the most expensive spice next to saffron and the most popular flavouring.
Vanilla flavour can also be synthetically made. It is used to flavour foods and beverages and to impart vanilla fragrance to cosmetics.
For the most part, when one refers to vanilla it is as a flavouring agent as vanilla also refers to the tropical climbing orchard, V.planifolia, as well as its fruit, the fragrant vanilla beans.
Vanilla is native to the tropical rain forests of Central America and today it is cultivated in other tropical regions of the world as well.
Most, about 75%, of the vanilla comes from Madagascar, Reunion, and Indonesia and the rest from Mexico, Tahiti, West Indies and some other countries.
Vanilla in the days of yore was used both as a foodstuff and as currency.
The Vanilla Plant
The vanilla plant is a vine, a climber, that reaches up to 30 feet in height. It, therefore, needs support in the form of a tree or pole or anything else.
The flowers are trumpet-shaped and bisexual. Natural pollination takes place by the Melipona bees or the hummingbirds. The flowers remain open for just a day.
In commercial cultivation, and where these natural pollinators are absent, manual pollination by hands is carried out which is a laborious process in as much as is the vanilla beans' processing.
Vanilla is produced from the pods or beans of the vanilla plant which need to be picked before they are ripe.
There are 3 main cultivated varieties of vanilla, viz:
- Vanilla planifolia
- Vanilla pompona
- Vanilla tahitensis
The vanilla pods or beans are on an average 6 to 8 inches long and brownish to almost black when ripe. Each pod contains thousands of tiny seeds.
Though under natural conditions the flowers are pollinated by vectors like the Melipona bees or the hummingbirds, under cultivation they need to be manually pollinated by hand. This makes it very labour intensive and time-consuming process as harvesting of the beans is also as cumbersome.
The pods are harvested when just about to mature but still green, blanched in hot water and then allowed to dry for some months.
Vanilla And Its Processing
In the wild, vanilla vines climb up to the top of tall trees. Under cultivation, however, they need to be pruned because this tendency of theirs would make harvesting the beans/pods very difficult. Hence, they are kept at a height where workers can easily pluck the beans.
Also, to enable them to start flowering their growth needs to be limited and hence the need for pruning them.
The beans can grow to a foot long though they average about 8 inches in length. The green pods have no odour and taste at the time of harvesting. They need to be fermented to give off their characteristic vanilla flavour.
This process is long and laborious during which the beans are first blanched in hot water, and then an alternate drying and sweating process is followed over a period of 2-6 months.
During the day they are dried in the sun while at night they are covered in blankets to make them sweat. As a result, the beans turn a very dark brown colour causing the development of frost or a white substance on the outside of the beans. This is vanillin, the compound responsible for the vanilla flavour and aroma.
Once this stage is reached the beans need to be aged to allow their full flavour to develop. This may take as long as 2 years. They are then dried and stored in airtight containers to retain their flavour.
Once the vanilla pods are cured they are graded by quality depending on their length, appearance and moisture content. The top quality pods are whole, very dark in colour have an oily lustre and are blemish free with high moisture content.
Vanilla is available as pods, extract, powder, vanilla sugar, and as essence.
Types Of Vanilla
There are 3 main types of vanilla that are popular.
- Bourbon (Madagascar) Vanilla
The most popular and abundant of all the types of vanilla that is available. The beans are long and thin and taste very sweet. This vanilla is best for baked goods as it, complements the dish, not dominates it.
- Tahitian Vanilla
It has a sweet and fruity flavour, a cherry lie liquorice taste, but less of the vanilla taste than the other 2 types. It is thicker and moister than the Bourbon type, a deeper almost black colour than the others but a subtler flavour. It is used in making perfumes.
- Mexican Vanilla
Thicker than both the other types, it has the best smooth flavour among all 3 of them. The fragrance and flavour are strong and intoxicating.
Vanilla extract is a natural product and the most popular form in which vanilla is used. It is the most purchased form as well since it is far cheaper than buying the vanilla beans.
Vanilla extract is obtained by macerating the vanilla beans in a mixture of alcohol and water for many months to produce the typical dark coloured liquid extract. The first extract, called the first fold vanilla, is a single strength 35% alcohol extract, the most commonly available and used by the home baker.
The two-fold and three-fold extracts are known as essences; they are strong flavoured and used by professional bakers.
Vanilla, as a rule, should never be added to hot liquids as some flavour is lost due to the evaporation of alcohol. Vanilla powder, instead, is the best option in such a case.
Only purchase vanilla extract that has been labelled 'pure' as the rest are imitations made of synthetic vanilla.
Vanilla flavouring is a mix of pure vanilla extract and synthetic vanilla extract,
One can prepare vanilla extract at home by placing a vanilla bean that has been sliced vertically into 2 and keeping it in 180 ml of vodka (vodka is a neutral spirit), keeping it tightly closed and letting it steep for 6 months before using.
Pure vanilla extract as per USDA must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid and a 35% alcohol content.
1 tsp Vanilla Extract = 2 inch piece of vanilla beans
1 vanilla bean = 3 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp vanilla paste = 1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp. vanilla sugar = 1/4 tsp of vanilla extract
Vanilla Sugar & Vanilla Powder
Vanilla sugar is prepared by burying a vanilla bean in powdered sugar for a couple of weeks. This can then be used to flavour desserts, cakes, ice creams etc.
1 tsp of vanilla sugar = 1/4 tsp of vanilla extract.
Vanilla powder is made by grinding the dry vanilla beans to a powder.
It is prepared from vanilla beans by infusing them into a thick syrup made with sugar, water and a thickener like corn syrup. The vanilla beans are scraped into this paste.
Sometimes the vanilla beans are powdered and mixed with concentrated vanilla extract and a binder like corn syrup or xanthum gum is added.
Vanilla paste is not exactly a paste but more like liquid glue. It is used in bakery items like cakes, icecreams, sauces, bread etc.
1/2 tsp of vanilla paste can replace 1 tsp of vanilla extract.
It is a synthetically produced vanilla flavouring and therefore far cheaper than vanilla extract. As with the extract always add it after the dish has been taken off the heat.
Also, as it is a synthetic product be careful not to add it in excess as it leaves a bitter after taste.
Nutrients In Vanilla
The main chemical in the pods is vanillin. Numerous other constituents like eugenol, phenols, alcohols, acids, lactones, aliphatic and aromatic carbohydrates etc are also present.
Also present are many B-complex vitamins and minerals albeit in a small amount.
Over 150 organic compounds make up the vanilla flavour and vanilla enhances the natural flavour of fruits and foods.
Nutrients In Vanilla Extract
|Vanilla extract (Vanilla planifolia),|
Nutritional value per 100 g.
(Source: USDA National Nutrient data base)
Percentage of RDA
Vanilla Bean Grades
Though grading between the different types of vanilla is not done, within anyone type of vanilla after curing, the beans are graded as below. It depends on moisture content, bean length and appearance.
- Fine (Prime) Vanilla
It is about 8-12 inches long, oily and dark but soft and flexible, dark, almost black coloured, and frosted with vanillin. It has the highest moisture content among all grades somewhere around 30-35%.
- Woody Vanilla
About 5-8 inches long, no frost on the surface which is dull and dry, the moisture content is around 20%.
These are about 4-5 inches in length with a little bitter smell, no vanillin frost, brown in colour and thick, stiff and flat, even partially opened.
Though grade A or prime vanilla beans are better looking it is not always the best choice as grade B has less water content and is, therefore, a better deal in terms of overall quality and price.
So you see, though vanilla is a synonym for plain, boring, and more of the kind, vanilla flavoring is no vanilla. Enjoy it in its many forms and add flavor to your food and life.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2016 Rajan Singh Jolly
Rajan Singh Jolly (author) from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on November 08, 2020:
Glad you like the information, Peggy. Thank you.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 05, 2020:
You added much to my knowledge today. I never thought about the origins of vanilla, and that it comes from a certain type of orchid plant, or that it takes so long to process. Thanks!
Rajan Singh Jolly (author) from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 06, 2016:
@Flourish, Mexican vanilla or whatever, it far surpasses the synthetic one. Of course if that isn't available then one is bound to go for the synthetic.
@Diana Lee, most of us love this universally appealing flavour and of course I too love these vanilla coffee creamers.
@MsDora, glad to see the hub being appreciated. I'm happy to note it provided you with some new information. Thank you.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 05, 2016:
I grew up using vanilla essence and knowing that it was synthetic. It took me a while to realize that there was a vanilla plant, bean and extract. Thanks for the detailed research.
Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on March 05, 2016:
This hub is very interesting. Vanilla is a flavoring I use often in one way or another. I love the French vanilla coffee creamers.
FlourishAnyway from USA on March 05, 2016:
This is a great hub, Rajan. Years ago when Mexico was a safer place to travel, my brother would go and return with Big bottles of Mexican vanilla. Cookies and other homemad items would taste a little different with this vanilla but very pleasant.
Rajan Singh Jolly (author) from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 04, 2016:
@Devika, thanks for stopping by.
@chefsref, vanilla processing is really a long drawn out process. buying the beans and making the extract is far easier. Good luck and thank you for reading my hub.
Lee Raynor from Citra Florida on March 04, 2016:
I love vanilla and always wished I could grow it, that is until I read here how laborious it is after harvesting. Guess I'll stick to buying the beans.
I heard there was a crop problem this year so prices will hit the roof?
DDE on March 04, 2016:
Great benefits and certainly a useful hub. Vanilla is a unique extract.