Vanilla can be divided into two very lopsided categories. The first category is the meticulously cured fruit of a tropical orchid. The second, which makes up around 97% of the vanilla used commercially for mass production, is a vanilla flavor typically made from a synthesized form of the flavor compound vanillin, the chief chemical compound that flavors the bean. The development of each category of vanilla as a usable flavor is science. But, the former requires a painstaking degree of commitment, as well as an equal measure of intuition and skill, to navigate the myriad of factors and pitfalls needed to overcome. The result is a finished product worthy of everything from the finest French custards to the gently infused beverage.
Vanilla, a tropical plant, was first cultivated by the Totonac people of Mexico in the area today known as Veracruz. All vanilla currently being cultivated in the world originally came from Mexico, the world’s chief producer of vanilla until the mid-19th century. The process for transplanting the vine to other areas of the world is a story of determination and invention—and a bit of luck.
Ambitious explorers didn’t realize the orchid relied on its symbiotic relationship with the indigenous melipona (a species of stingless bee). The bee’s physiology is uniquely constructed to pollinate the vanilla orchid. Several attempts were made to produce fruit from the orchid in various parts of the world, then to transport the melipona bee, all with no success. Ultimately, a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius, on what is now known as Reunion Island, developed a sophisticated process for hand-pollinating the flowers. Edmond’s process is still employed today—even in Mexico, where the melipona still exists—because of its better-than-85% success rate.
Each vanilla vine usually has five or six flowers, but can support up to 12. Farmers typically only pollinate flowers on a single side of the vine to ensure they hang perpendicularly, which produces consistently uniform beans that are straight as possible. The time between flowering and harvesting is six to nine months, although the beans reach full size six weeks after pod development. Once harvested, the curing process begins immediately.
The curing process is the main factor in developing the incredibly complex flavor of vanilla beans, which are virtually flavorless when harvested. Chemically, more than 150 flavor compounds have been identified in vanilla. A four-step curing process is used in all growing regions, but it is the level of attention and variations in the steps that affect flavor characteristics, as well as overall quality.
The first step in the process of curing vanilla beans is “killing” of the bean to stop the vegetative development and initiate the enzymatic reaction responsible for aroma and flavor. As an example, the process is accomplished in the Bourbon variety by dunking the beans into 150˚F water for several minutes. The second step is “sweating.” This entails heating the beans for a few hours each day, for several days, until they maintain about 120°F, at which point they’re wrapped in woolen blankets to retain heat and humidity, then stored in wooden chests.
The third step is slow drying for a month or more. Slow drying involves keeping the beans at an ambient temperature, typically in the shade, until the beans are a third of their original weight. The last step is “conditioning,” where the beans are stored in closed boxes for three months or longer to permit full flavor development. When beans are fully cured, they should be dark, supple, oily in appearance and intensely aromatic. Once cured, vanilla beans will weigh approximately 20% of their harvested weight.
According to the book, Vanilla, by Janet Hazen (Chronicle Books, 1995), although more than 150 species of the orchid that produces vanilla beans exist, only two are used widely for commercial purposes: Vanilla planefolia, which is the vanillin-rich bean used to make the notoriously rich and aromatic Bourbon variety; and Vanilla tahitensis, a highly prized bean mostly attributed to the Tahiti French Polynesia variety.
Planefolia beans are the most commonly cultivated and the chief variety used in the Bourbon region, which includes Madagascar, Reunion, Mauritius and other western islands of the Indian Ocean. Madagascar alone accounts for approximately 58% of the world’s vanilla. (Reunion Island used to be called Bourbon Island and attributed the name “Bourbon” to this vanilla variety.) Due to the exceptionally high level of vanillin, this variety has highly flavored beans. Vanilla farmers often mark each bean with their signature brand while the bean is still green—so there is no confusion (or theft!)—when the beans are sent to the curing specialists. Planefolia are also grown in Indonesia, that country having joined Madagascar as one of the two largest producers of vanilla.
Tahitensis beans, grown primarily in Tahiti and Papua New Guinea, are planefolia beans that mutated into a unique species. They have significantly different flavor attributes and yield a noticeably plumper finished product. Tahitensis have lower levels of vanillin and higher levels of other compounds, creating a subtler, more “fruit-forward” product than the Bourbon variety.
Tahitensis beans from Tahiti are the rarest and most expensive on the market. From the perspective of vanilla aficionados, they’re considered unique, with no viable substitutes. There is some debate over whether all beans produced in Papua New Guinea are true tahitensis beans, but what is known is that overall quality does not compare to their Tahitian counterparts.
As with the most expensive ingredients, shortcuts are always sought to reduce cost and increase profit. Examples include adding oil during the curing process or reducing the time devoted to curing. This ultimately yields a product with less flavor and shorter shelflife. More seriously, vanilla extracts can often be cut with the cheaper tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata, also known as the cumaru bean) extract, an ingredient banned by the FDA; it contains a compound shown to cause liver damage.
Varying qualities; susceptibility to natural, environmental and climatological stresses; and the limited number of countries with a market share in the industry are the main contributors to the vanilla market being highly unstable and speculative. This is evidenced by the drastic raw material price fluctuations over the last decade alone. (The 2006 tsunami severely impacted vanilla cultivation.)
Because of its complexity of flavor, vanilla often is used as a “hidden” base note in certain traditional foods. When expertly applied, pure vanilla creates a depth of flavor that would other-wise be impossible to achieve. Many chefs and other flavor experts use vanilla as a secret ingredient this way—and in recipes where it is traditionally unexpected, such as marinara or chili.
The application of vanilla, without necessarily featuring vanilla, has been used for quite some time. The original recipe of Coca-Cola is an example. The appeal of vanilla in this way could be likened to savory applications’ “umami effect,” where a food has an intangible appeal. But, vanilla still is most prominent as the featured flavor in many baked items, desserts, and even spirits and sauces, where true vanilla flavor is a pronounced star. pf
Vanilla Dos and Don’ts
• Purchase beans that are plump, moist and oily in appearance. These beans have been cured and stored properly and will yield the fullest flavor and aroma.
• Purchase Bourbon vanilla when seeking a strong punch of vanilla. This variety’s high vanillin content is responsible for an intoxicating aroma and penetrating flavor.
• Utilize small amounts of vanilla in savory recipes where vanilla isn’t a featured ingredient, but depth of flavor is desired.
• Use synthetic forms of vanilla when product cost is a major factor and the vanilla component of the flavor profile doesn’t need to be particularly distinct. Synthetic forms typically only have vanillin and none of the other scores of flavor compounds that make true vanilla true vanilla.
Don’t do this:
• Attempt to replace tahitensis vanilla from Tahiti with its counterpart from Papua New Guinea and expect the same sublime flavor. If you do, prepare to trade cost for quality.
• Utilize vanilla extract when ethyl alcohol or its effect on the sensory experience is not desired. Even stronger three-fold or 10-fold extract products have a minimum of 35% alcohol.
• Purchase vanilla beans if they will not be used within a few months, as their flavor becomes a moving target. Vanilla paste, extract or natural flavor would be a better choice, since shelflife is much more stable.
• Utilize vanilla paste unless one accounts for the typically high sugar content of the paste itself.
• Add vanilla powder to a recipe unless one is prepared to include malt dextrin on the ingredient deck, as it is a typical carrier needed to bring out the vanilla taste.