Vanilla is regarded as the world's most popular aroma and flavor. It is used in a wide variety of ways such as in all kinds of baking, making chocolate candies, ice cream, perfume manufacture and aromatherapy.
Real vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron. It is made from the fruit (bean pod) of the flat-leaved vanilla orchid, a vine-like tropical plant with dark, leathery leaves that produces a single ornate, pale green flower. The vanilla vine has little rootlets by which the plant attaches itself to a host tree.
In cultivation, the plant lives for about 10 years, and it produces its first fruit after three years. The vanilla bean is produced only when the flower is pollinated. Unfortunately, the flower only opens up for pollination one day each year. In its native home of Mexico and Central America, the flower is able to be pollinated by only several species of insects.
The plant produces a fruit that is cylindrical and ranges from 5 to 10 inches in length. The fruit has an oily black pulp that houses numerous black seeds.
To make vanilla, the bean pods are gathered when they are yellow-green. They are then washed, sorted, cured (dried) and aged, which shrinks the beans and turns them a rich, chocolate-brown color. The process also gives the bean pod the flavor and aroma of vanilla as we know it.
The vanilla extract we use is prepared by a complicated and expensive process that involves chopping up the beans and percolating them with alcohol and water. Because of the high demand for vanilla flavoring, coupled with the great expense and time consumed in producing real vanilla, food scientists have developed artificial vanilla flavors that cost much less and are easier to produce.
A future column will provide more information about the history of vanilla and how artificial vanilla is produced.