When you drink a much-needed vanilla flavored latte in the mornings or see those specks of vanilla mixed into your ice cream, do you ever wonder, “Where do vanilla beans come from?”
Are they natural products? Why are they so expensive? Can you grow them yourself and keep from paying all that money for dried vanilla bean pods?
Truth is, vanilla has a pretty fascinating history and there’s a lot to learn about this delicious (and useful) plant. Let’s get started.
In This Post, You’ll Learn:
- Exactly what vanilla is and where it comes from
- How vanilla is cultivated
- What artificial vanilla extract is and if it’s good for you
- How to buy vanilla beans
- How to grow vanilla beans at home
What Is Vanilla?
Though vanilla extract can be artificial – and we’ll get to that in a bit – vanilla beans are perfectly natural. They are the products of a plant, Vanilla planifolia.
Where do vanilla beans grow?
The beans are native to the New World and grow from Mexico to Brazil. The Aztecs used to flavor their chocolate drinks with vanilla beans. The Spanish conquistadors found vanilla just as alluring and brought it back to Europe.
There’s also a type of vanilla that is grown commercially in Hawaii and Tahiti, and it’s also been introduced into Madagascar and Réunion. Réunion, by the way, was where planters learned to hand-pollinate the vanilla plant. This technique was invented by a slave named Edmond Albius, who was only 12 at the time.
He also had an awesome mustache.
The plant needs to be artificially pollinated if it is grown outside of its native habitat. This is because it has, over millennia, developed a symbiotic relationship with a certain species of bee called Melipona. This is a tiny, stingless bee with huge, iridescent green eyes that is being slowly replaced by European and Africanized honey bees, which start work earlier in the morning and are not as choosy about the flowers they visit.
Vanilla planifolia is a climbing vine with a crooked stem and rubbery leaves. Eventually, the plant produces a lovely orchid flower that only lasts one day. If the orchids are pollinated within that time, the plant also produces seedpods that can be a foot long.
Indeed, the name vanilla comes from the Spanish for “little pod.” A cultivated plant lives for about 10 years and starts to produce when it is about three years old.
Vanilla pods have an oily pulp, black in color, in which are nestled many tiny seeds. Pods are picked when they’re not quite ripe and a yellowish-green colored. At that point they are filled with a compound called glucovanillin.
This is a vanillin molecule, or 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, attached to a molecule of glucose, or simple sugar. The pods are then picked and cured by a three or four-week long process of drying and sweating until the odor and flavors develop. By then they have shrunk and turned black, and the glucose and vanillin have parted company, leaving vanillin.
The process of making vanilla extract is complicated and expensive. Basically, the beans are ground to even smaller pieces which contain about two percent vanillin. They are then percolated with water and alcohol and tiny amounts of other components.
Though a lot of vanilla extract goes a long way, it is mostly alcohol and water. In fact, United States law states that vanilla extract must contain at least 35 percent alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon. Because making real vanilla extract is so expensive, scientists have found ways to make artificial vanilla extract.
Artificial Vanilla Extract
One process of making artificial vanilla extract was perfected by using the residue of paper production, specifically the lignan that’s left over from wood pulp. A more modern process makes vanilla extract from, believe it or not, fossil fuels.
Some people make a simple vanilla extract by sticking the pods into a jar tall enough to hold them and then letting them steep in vodka for about a month.
How to Buy Vanilla Beans
One nice way to keep a vanilla pod is to nestle it into a jar of sugar, which will give the sugar a hint of vanilla flavor. Another way to add flavor to puddings or custards is to bruise the vanilla bean and add it to simmering milk or cream. The good news is that the pod can be taken out, washed off a bit and used again.
How to Grow Vanilla
Vanilla is a plant of the tropics that prefers things hot and humid. But it can be grown in a greenhouse, even though growing it is quite labor intensive.
The soil needs to be rich, loamy, acidic and have good drainage. The plant is a heavy feeder and needs to be mulched and fertilized with such standbys as chicken manure, worm castings and oil cakes. As a vine, the orchid will also need a support. When the orchid opens it must be hand-pollinated at once to produce a pod. This tricky maneuver requires a blade of grass or a toothpick.
The plant also needs to be protected from diseases and pests. To be blunt, if I were you, I’d just buy my vanilla pods and extract from the supermarket.
If you absolutely have to try and grow it yourself, here’s a great guide:
Best Vanilla Beans, Extracts, and Flavorings
- Grade A Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans
- Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract
- Homemade Vanilla Extract Kit
Vanilla is one of the most popular flavorings on earth, but is it worth the trouble it takes to grow the vine, cultivate its pods and make its extract? Though chefs may shun the use of artificial vanilla extract, tasters find no difference between the real stuff and the artificial. Still, those specks of vanilla beans in your ice cream are irreplaceable.
Have you grown vanilla? Do you prefer artificial or natural? Let me know in the comments below!
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