to saffron and cardamom, vanilla is the world’s next most expensive spice.
Growers are known to “brand” their beans with pin pricks before they can be
harvested, to identify the owner and prevent theft. Vanilla is native to Mexico, where it is still
grown commercially. Vanilla was used by the Aztecs for flavoring their royal
drink xocolatl - a mixture of cocoa beans, vanilla and honey. Cortez
brought vanilla back to Europe in the sixteenth
century, after having observed Montezuma drinking the cocoa concoction. It has
many non-culinary uses, including aromatizing perfumes, cigars and liqueurs.
Europeans prefer to use the bean, while North Americans usually use the
extract. Substances called “vanilla flavor” don’t contain vanilla at all, being
synthesized from eugenol (clove oil), waste paper pulp, coal tar or ‘coumarin’,
found in the tonka bean, whose use is forbidden in several countries
comes from the seed pod, or the ‘bean’ of the vanilla plant. The prepared beans
are very dark brown, slender, pleated and about 8 inches long. The bean is
tough and pliable, quality vanilla having a frosting of crystal called givre.
The crystals contain the active ingredient ‘vanillin’ that produces the
characteristic fragrance and is produced during the process of induced
fermentation. These pods are called ‘fine vanilla’. ‘Woody vanilla’ is shorter,
lighter colored, uncrystallized, stronger and slightly bitter. All beans contain
thousands of tiny black seeds. Vanilla extract is also available and, if of
good quality, is identical in flavor to the pods.
Bouquet: highly fragrant and aromatic
Flavor: rich, full, aromatic and powerful. Madagascar and Mexico making the best quality.
Indonesian and Tahitian vanilla is weaker and considered inferior.
Where to Buy Vanilla
Most specialty food shops carry vanilla beans. Look for oily flexible pods.
There are a number of places to purchase online, though we recommend
Preparation and Storage
Vanilla extract is made by percolating alcohol and water through chopped, cured
beans, somewhat like making coffee. Vanilla extract is very powerful, a few
drops sufficing for most uses. Vanilla bean is a bit more time consuming to use
than the extract, but imparts the strongest vanilla flavor without the alcohol
To flavor a liquid base for crème sauces, puddings, ice creams, etc., allow one
bean per pint to steep in the liquid by boiling and allowing cooling for an
hour before removing the bean. This can be repeated a few times if the bean is
washed after use, dried and kept airtight. Ground vanilla can also be used, but
use half as much and leave in the liquid. Many recipes call for slitting the
bean lengthwise and scraping out the tiny black seeds. Airtight storage is
necessary, otherwise the aroma will dissipate. A good way to store whole
vanilla is to bury it in sugar. Use a jar with a tight-fitting lid that will
hold about a pound of sugar, burying the bean so that no light can reach it.
After 2 -3 weeks the sugar tastes of vanilla and can be used in coffee or in
other recipes and the bean can be removed for other uses and returned to the
sugar after cleaning. Keep topping up the sugar.
Vanilla’s mellow fragrance enhances a variety of sweet dishes: puddings, cakes,
custards, creams, soufflés and, of course, ice cream. Classic examples include
crème caramel, peach Melba and apple Charlotte. Vanilla flavor is detectable in
many chocolate and confectionery items and several liqueurs such as Crème de
Cacao and Galliano.