The Aztecs were the first to use vanilla to accent the taste of chocolate. Vanilla was discovered in 1571 in Mexico. For centuries, it could only be grown in Mexico because only the Melipona bee, a small bee species indigenous to Mexico, can pollinate it.
Vanilla is still highly prized today due to its rarity and labor-intensive process involved before the product can reach the market.
Vanilla is a fruit of a tropical orchid that only grows in areas within 20 degrees of the equator such as Mexico, Madagascar and Tahiti. The orchid fill bear flowers only after 3 years after planting. The blossoms will only open for a few hours, one day a year, which leaves growers only a small window of time to hand-pollinate the flowers. After the blossoms have been hand-pollinated, it will take six weeks before the pods reach their full size of six to ten inches. The pods will mature between eight to nine months. The green, mature pods need to be handpicked and processed (curing) to get the vanilla flavor that we know.
Curing starts with the beans given a 20-second bath of boiling water before being placed under the sun to dry. When the beans are hot from the sun exposure, they will be wrapped in blankets to promote sweating. The process is repeated every day for three to six months until the beans ferment and turn dark brown in color. The beans will shrink in size for about 400 percent.
Only two species of vanilla orchids are allowed to be used in food – vanilla planifolia which is grown in Madagascar, India, Uganda, Indonesia and Mexico and vanilla tahitensis from Papua New Guinea and of course, Tahiti.
Vanilla extract is the most common form of vanilla being sold commercially today. It is a solution which is the result of the extraction from vanilla beans of the flavor compound vanillin through the process of percolating chopped vanilla beans in water and ethyl alcohol for 48 hours and then aged for months.
Under US Food and Drug Administration requirement (CRF Title 21 part 169), a vanilla product can only be labeled pure vanilla extract if the solution contains 1 fold extract on the minimum. This solution is called 1 fold extract if it contains at least 35% alcohol, 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans that have been properly cured, 25% moisture or less per gallon of water. It may contain sugar, propylene glycol and glycerin.
Gourmet and specialty shops, supermarkets and some online stores sell vanilla extract. Here are some tips to guide you in getting the right vanilla extract.
1. There are three main types of vanilla extracts available in the market:
- Madagascar Bourbon that comes from Bourbon-Madagascar (Africa) and the island of Réunion (West Indies). About 75% to 80% of vanilla extracts come from Madagascar. Its flavor is richer, deeper and sweeter and suitable for cream recipes.
- Tahitian vanilla that has a fruity scent smells like cherries, wine or licorice. This extract is best for recipes that contain fruits.
- Mexican vanilla extract has some spiciness and almost the same as the Madagascar Bourbon. This is scarcer because more areas are being converted into orange groves and oil fields. Its inherent spiciness works best with cinnamon-flavored recipes.
2. Look for familiar brands that older generations have used. It is not guarantee though that this will be the best vanilla extract.
3. Pure vanilla extracts are clear liquids. A dark color may indicate that a red dye, which is banned in the US, has been added or caramel has been introduced which means that the vanilla extract is artificially made.
4. Look at the ingredients list, which should be enumerated from the highest to the lowest, in this order: water, alcohol, and vanilla bean extract contents. Other ingredients that may have been added should also follow the same enumeration order.
5. Look out for words like “double the intensity of vanillin” which may be an indication of adulteration. If it is just labeled “vanilla extract”, the product may only contain a small amount or actually no vanilla extract but artificial flavors only.
6. See if the label includes certification symbols like Organic or Kosher, which will indicate that the product has been manufactured under their standards.
7. Some extracts are blends of the three types, although that is not usually specified. But if the origin is mentioned, for example, 100% Tahitian vanilla, then you should expect to get 100% Tahitian vanilla.
8. Bear in mind that the extracts from Tahitian vanilla beans are more expensive than those that are made from Madagascar Bourbon or Mexican beans. If the label says that it is made from Tahitian beans and the price is lower compared to the others, then be very wary about getting this product.
9. Those extracts coming from beans grown in Papua New Guinea is of the same variety as the beans grown in Tahiti although the price is markedly lower than those extracted from Tahitian beans.
10. Some extracts may contain specs or vanilla bean seeds that are in the bottom of the bottle. The seeds actually do not have any flavor are mainly used to provide some decoration to some desserts. You really do not need this. If you are after the specs, it is better to buy ground vanilla beans or chop a whole vanilla bean pod.
TIP: When adding vanilla extract, remove your dish from the fire and allow it to cool. You will get more of its complex flavors when you add it to warm food items.
Vanilla is an essential ingredient in many desserts that has no other substitute. Over 250 organic components are found in real vanilla that cannot be duplicated synthetically. A few drops of real vanilla extract can impart a deep, rich flavor to any dessert. Artificial vanilla, to put it simply is one-dimensional.