By Steven Davidson, HR & Finance Manager
“Just plain vanilla, please.”
It’s my favorite ice cream flavor, vanilla creamer, buttercream frosting, and grandmas homemade sugar cookie flavor. Vanilla – the kitchen’s basic staple with so much versatility. Little did I know I would be schooled in vanilla. Because it was so fascinating to learn about vanilla, I had to share this with you!
Vanilla is one of the most amazing flavors even though some think of it as “basic”. Some think of it as plain. Others think of it as just your run of the mill ho-hum flavor. Then there are those few that just can’t justify purchasing pure vanilla or vanilla beans, and decide they’ll stick with imitation flavoring. Well, get ready to be blown away. You’ll never think of vanilla the same way again!
Vanilla comes from the Vanilla Orchid. The orchid that the vanilla bean comes from takes three to five years to fully mature. One unique fact about vanilla orchids is that they are hand pollinated, which allows global cultivation. The beans are then harvested by hand, and the growing process repeats. Beans are mature and ready for picking approximately six to nine months after pollination. Skilled harvesters hand check each vanilla bean to ensure it’s ripe for the picking. Pick too soon and the bean won’t have that distinct flavor, too late and the beans will split. Beans are then sorted, cured, and processed depending on their intended use; whole beans, extracts, etc. Putting this into perspective, it takes six to nine months to grow a bean, then just as long to cure and process them. Like a fine wine, vanilla aging ensures perfection in appearance and taste! What about the people who harvest and pick vanilla beans? They are experienced farmers whose families have done this for generations!
Since 1898, over eighty percent of the world’s vanilla comes from the island of Madagascar (which is where Madagascar vanilla comes from, one of the many varieties of vanilla). Prior to 1898 most of the world’s vanilla came from Mexico. Over the years Madagascar has experienced terrible storms and harsh weather, which has negatively impacted vanilla crops. Because of this the price of vanilla has increased to almost $600 per kilogram, nearly ten times as much as it was just a few years ago.
There are four distinct types of vanilla available:
- Bourbon – Grown in area of the Indian Ocean, Madagascar, Comoros, and Réunion. It has a very distinct flavor, however, there is no bourbon involved (the term is used to describe its deep and rich flavor and aromatic notes). In addition, a specific curing process takes place to give the beans and extract a distinct color, flavor, and aroma.
- Mexican – From Mexico, produced in lower quantities and named from the land of origin.
- Tahitian – From west Polynesia, only accounts for approximately 1% of the vanilla supply.
- West Indian Vanilla – Grown primarily in the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
We do hear the term “French Vanilla”, which comes from, of course, France. French Vanilla refers to a distinct caramelized vanilla and custard flavor, with slight floral notes. French Vanilla ice cream? My personal favorite! French Vanilla ice cream uses a custard base, along with vanilla beans, cream, egg yolks, and vanilla extract.
Vanilla caviar? Yes, it is as rich as it sounds… in flavor, that is. Traditional vanilla caviar is made from the seeds and pulp scraped from inside the vanilla bean. When you want to add extra depth of flavor and aroma, as well as visual appeal to your recipe, this is your must-have ingredient.
Along with using pure vanilla in your recipes you can also use vanilla sugar to create even more depth and richness. Making vanilla sugar is very easy! Use 1 whole vanilla bean to two cups of granulated sugar. Slice and scrape the vanilla bean lengthwise, burying the bean into the sugar. Keep sealed in an airtight container for 1-2 weeks (longer for an even richer flavor), shaking occasionally. When a recipe calls for granulated sugar just use your vanilla sugar instead.
So what is imitation vanilla? It is made with synthetic vanillin, a compound found in vanilla beans that gives vanilla its distinct flavor. Imitation vanilla comes from a variety of sources, including pulp waste, coal tar, clove oil, pine bark, fermented bran, and most commonly from a beaver’s castor glands. Because of this, along with the fact that it has such rich, deep, and pleasantly complex flavor notes, I personally prefer using pure vanilla over imitation vanilla.
So, the next time you are ordering a vanilla ice cream cone on a hot summer day, or making grandmas homemade sugar cookie recipe, or getting that French vanilla latte, you’ll remember how unique, flavorful, and complex, vanilla is. You won’t look at this culinary kitchen staple the same way again.