Vanilla: Anything But Plain
Vanilla is one of those ingredients that transforms any dish into decadent deliciousness with a simple flick of its magical pixie dust. We’ll be diving into this magic all week in the form of some seriously tasty recipes, but first let’s run through the vanilla basics.
Why is vanilla so expensive?
Vanilla is a finicky, labor-intensive plant, making it the second most expensive spice (next to saffron). Vanilla originally comes from Mexico, where hummingbirds and bees have adapted to be able to penetrate and pollinate its flower. But when Europeans first brought vanilla plants back home with them, and without the help of the native birds and bees, they couldn’t figure out how to pollinate the flowers to grow beans. It wasn’t until the 1800s that a kid figured out how to pollinate the flowers by hand, and since then, most vanilla in the world has been pollinated this way! Farmers must catch the flower blossoming (it’s open for about 1 day) and pollinate it before it closes. Once the beans finally do grow and are picked, they need hourly attention (sun drying and rolling) for four months.
On top of all this, vanilla beans are only grown in a few places around the world. 75% of all vanilla comes from Madagascar, so when disease killed off a huge portion of the Madagascar vanilla a few years ago, production plummeted and prices shot up even further.
Varieties of Vanilla
There are a few varieties of vanilla bean grown around the world:
- Bourbon: This variety comes from Madagascar (and to a lesser extent New Zealand) and has a lot of vanillin, the natural flavor molecule responsible for vanilla’s distinct taste.
- Indonesian: A smokier variety
- Mexican: This one has less vanillin and more fruity tones
- Tahitian: This is actually a different species of orchid with a softer taste
There are also a number of ways you might encounter vanilla in cooking:
- Extract: Alcohol + vanilla bean/seeds…that’s all! Watch out for other ingredients that shouldn’t be in your extract, like corn syrup
- Paste: Extract + seeds, ground into a smooth paste
- Powder: Dried extract + cornstarch, this is a dry, white powder that won’t discolor your culinary creations (use it like extract 1:1)
- Synthetic: Many vanilla-flavored things are made with synthetic vanilla, which is made by extracting vanillin from other plants (like cloves). This is an okay substitute, but doesn’t account for the other 170 flavor compounds in the vanilla bean which add dimension and character.
How to Store Vanilla
Simply store vanilla in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
How to Use Vanilla Bean
- Seeds: Cut the vanilla bean open lengthwise to expose the seeds, then scrape the flat part of your knife down the bean to get out all the tasty seeds!
- Bean: Don’t throw away your bean! It has more flavor than the seeds and is perfect for flavoring custards and sauces or for throwing into a jar of sugar for simple vanilla sugar.