a test kitchen dossier
Imagine a flower: A climbing orchid, to be exact; the one of some twenty thousand varieties that produces something edible…that its blooms must be pollinated either by hand or a small variety of Mexican bee, and that each bloom only opens for one day a year. Now imagine the fruit of this orchid, a pod, being picked and cured, sitting in the sun all day, sweating under blankets all night for months until, shrunken and shriveled, it develops a heady, exotic perfume and flavor. Now imagine that this fruit’s name is synonymous with dull, boring, and ordinary. How vanilla got this bad rap I for one will never know.
— Alton Brown
Proper Name: Vanilla Planifolia (also vanilla pompona and vanilla tahitiensis)
From Spanish vainilla, dimunitive form of vaina, meaning “sheath.” The western term is a permutation of the Latin vagina, also meaning sheath.
Area of Origin
Originally cultivated on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, vanilla is now grown throughout the tropics, particularly in Tahiti and Madagascar.
Vanilla is one of the world’s most expensive spices due to its labor-intensive process of cultivation. The world’s only edible orchid, vanilla grows on the vine when the orchid is pollinated, producing a fruit (the vanilla bean). Herein lies the challenge, however: Since the orchids are unable to self-pollinate, they must rely on specific bees, hummingbirds with very long beaks, or the hands of man to do the job, and that is just the beginning of the beans’ lengthy journey to the pantry. Much additional labor must take place before vanilla can be used as a spice: After the beans mature for about nine months on the vine, they must be picked, dried, cured and prepared for consumption (Tahitian beans stay on the vine until they turn brown). Contrary to popular notions, the familiar, soothing scent of the beans develops only during the drying and curing process, as the beans release no scent during their time on the vine. Interestingly enough, soil and climate deeply affect the taste of vanilla beans, whose nuances of flavor could be compared to those of grapes grown for wine. The flavor in vanilla comes from vanillin, the primary component of planifolia, which comprises 25% of the bean’s flavor and fragrance profile.
Vanilla has been pleasing the senses for centuries. First grown in MesoAmerican cultures in Mexico, it was considered a gift from the gods. The Totonaca tribe, who likely first grew vanilla, spread their knowledge to other MesoAmerican peoples. In the early 1500s vanilla beans set sail for Spain, but at that time vanilla was appreciated for its perfume alone; the pleasures induced by its flavor weren’t discovered by the Europeans until after Cortes’s invasion in 1519. Mexico maintained a vanilla-growing monopoly for many centuries, but in the late 1800s production moved eastward. Currently Madagascar and India are the world’s biggest producers, and Guatemala, Costa Rica, Uganda, China, Fiji, Tahiti and the Philippines now grow vanilla crops.
The Mayan people included vanilla in their list of spices bestowed by the gods, and it was initially used as a currency as well as a spice. Vanilla also enjoys a long history as an aphrodisiac (Montezuma is said to have been a fan), and could be called the “Ancient Viagra” due to its stimulating effect on the senses. From the 1820s to the early Nineteenth Century apothecaries would craft tinctures of vanilla for men in need of further stimulation. Though the effect may have been a placebo, the Fragrance Foundation and the Smell and Taste Research Foundation have conducted studies on vanilla’s fragrance, and found that older men became aroused when inhaling the scent (young men were more partial to donuts). Interestingly enough, vanilla has also been proven to be a natural calmative when ingested and inhaled. Tahitian vanilla’s heliotropic properties are calming in particular.
Its intoxicating effect on the senses may also stem from our taste memories, in which the soothing reminders of freshly baked goodies and “home” evoke a secure sense of calm within us.
Types of Vanilla
Vanilla is available in whole beans, powder and extract. The bottled vanilla extract we’re familiar with is vanilla mixed with alcohol as a flavor carrier (most of the alcohol burns off during cooking). Note that extracts most often contain high fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring to mask the harsh nose of the alcohol, so we recommend using the real beans or extracts made with sugar cane alcohol.
The vanilla vine comes in over 150 varieties, but two are mainly used for cultivation: Bourbon (Mexican) and Tahitian. Bourbon beans are the most common; they are now grown primarily in Madagascar and are often called Madagascar vanilla beans. They have a thick, oily skin and a very rich scent, and are long and sleek. The flavor has been described as creamy and grassy, and very easy on the taste buds.
Tahitian vanilla is actually an entirely different species; it mutated long ago but comes from the same original Mexican bean stock. Tahitian vanilla beans are usually much shorter and fatter than Bourbon ones, with a thinner and oilier skin. The Tahitian vanilla flavor is more fruit-based and floral, and is one of the world’s most coveted. Tahitian beans are becoming rarer and rarer as their terrain is taken over by other crops, making them the most expensive variety of vanilla beans available. (Note: Tahitian Gold is a brand name rather than a variety).
Vanilla can also be purchased as a powder ground from the pods, or as a thicker paste. The powder has an intensely concentrated flavor and the paste is ideal when you don’t want to add much liquid to a dish.
Cooking With and Storing Vanilla
The best vanilla beans should smell very strong and be oily to the touch; avoid scentless, brittle or dry beans. Liquid extract should be stored in a cool and dark place (light can affect it) and can last for several years. Vanilla beans will keep indefinitely when stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. They are best kept dry to prevent the growth of mold, so do not refrigerate them. If you live in dryer climate, it is best to wrap the beans in wax paper before placing them into the airtight container. If your beans dry out, you can either rehydrate them in hot water or grind them into vanilla powder.
Then entire bean, pod included, is full of flavor and can be used; you can cut a piece off and use the rest of the bean later, or use the remnants from a recipe to create treats such as vanilla sugar (Test Kitchen Note coming on that!). To cut the bean open, hold it still and sever it lengthwise. You can then scoop out the seeds and use them if you don’t want the tougher pod to end up in the dish, or if infusing a liquid you can add the entire inside and outside of the bean.
Vanilla is most popular in the baking department, but also shines when used in savory combinations, particularly with seafood such as scallops and lobster. Vanilla is also a wonderful companion to citrus, chocolate and nutty flavors, and provides a subtle foundation when used in combination with other spices.
Given our propensity for seeking the sublime, we wanted to explore vanilla’s use in both sweet and savory. Our scallop and lobster dishes evoke a sensory overload (no, really), and in our sweet dishes we’ve gone beyond the typical cakes and cookies to place vanilla in the spotlight.
Lobster Ravioli with Vanilla Butter Sauce
Vanilla Citrus Crème
Vanilla Sea Cocktail
Vanilla Vixen Cocktail
Vanilla Pancakes with Broiled Vanilla Plums
Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette
Molded Vanilla Cream with Berry Compote
Seared Scallops with Vanilla Champagne Crème
Fig Tart with Vanilla Crème Patissière
We offer very special thanks to Patricia Rain, the Vanilla Queen and founder of The Vanilla.COMpany, who provided most of the information for this dossier. Be sure to listen to Jennifer’s Food Philosophy interview with the Queen, who is well-deserving of her crown!
For further exploration, see The Vanilla Company’s web site, www.vanilla.com, which is chock full of information, including the following articles that we found fascinating: