Facts and FAQs About Vanilla

A brief encyclopedia of facts you might like to know about vanilla

What is Vanilla

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, the largest and oldest family of flowering plants in the world. Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the entire orchid family, which includes roughly 25,000 orchid varieties and over 10,000 hybrids. It grows best in the moist, tropical regions of the world 15-1/2 degrees to the north and south of the Equator.

Vanilla is a food of the Americas, originating in what is now Mexico, Central America, northern South America and the Caribbean. It is both an epiphyte, a plant that uses nutrients from the air, and a root producing orchid. It is a vine and must have a support (tree post, etc.) on which to grow.

Why is Vanilla so Expensive

Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world, which is why it is so expensive. After planting a three-foot (one meter) vine cutting, it will take at least 1-1/2 years before the vine flowers. The flowers must be hand pollinated. The beans remain on the vine for nine months. They are harvested by hand, must then go through a curing, drying and resting period, which takes three to five months. It takes at least three years from planting to sale. That said, farmers make pennies on the dollar for their beans. The people who make the most money are often the middlemen and the speculators who invest in vanilla.

Where is Vanilla Grown

Vanilla grows best 15-1/2 degrees north and south of the equator, but only in moist humid regions. Vanilla is native to the Americas. The center of the American vanilla industry is in the northern part of Veracruz state, but production in Mexico is currently very limited. The majority of vanilla is now produced on the island of Madagascar in Africa. East Africa also produces vanilla. Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, India and Polynesia grow vanilla for sale. Vanilla is also grown in the Caribbean, and even Hawaiians grow vanilla, but production is small and mostly sold locally to tourists.

What are Vanilla Beans

Vanilla beans are technically the ovary of the vanilla orchid. The orchids flower once a year and live for less than a day. In their native Mexico, they are occasionally pollinated naturally by two varieties of bees. Most of the time, vanilla orchids are pollinated by hand everywhere they are grown. Within three days after pollination, the vanilla bean appears. It grows to its full length within two weeks but must stay on the vine for nine months before being picked by hand. It will have no flavor or fragrance when it is picked.

Once picked, vanilla beans go through a very intensive month to six weeks of processing. They are cured, dried and then massaged to bring up their fragrant oils. They will  be sorted by size, allowed to rest for a month or two, then bundled, before being shipped. They are handled hundreds of times before they are ready for you to use.

There are two types of vanilla beans used commercially: Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis. Vanilla planifolia is the type of vanilla most frequently used in baking, ice creams, etc and has the flavor most of us associate with vanilla. Vanilla tahitensis is a cross between Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla odorata. The plant stock was taken to Tahiti by sailing ship in the mid-1786, but it wasn’t grown to sell until the turn of the twentieth century. It became known as Tahitian vanilla at that time.

What Part of the Vanilla Bean is Used for Cooking

Although TV chefs often use just the small seeds in cooking and discard the rest of the bean, the entire vanilla bean can be used! The entire bean is flavorful and it can be reused. If you are making a custard, ice cream base or sauce on the stove top, you will use anywhere from 1/3 of a vanilla bean to 1 whole bean, based on the size of your recipe and whether vanilla is the main flavor for what you are making. Slice the bean open before adding it to the mixture. Leave the bean in the mixture until it has cooled or even overnight.  Carefully rinse and dry the bean and put it in your sugar jar to flavor your sugar or, wrap it to save  and use again. We have vanilla bean recipes right here for you to enjoy and experiment with.

What are Bourbon Vanilla Beans

Traditionally the term “Bourbon Vanilla Beans” has meant vanilla beans grown on islands in the Indian Ocean. The island of Reunion was once called Ile de Bourbon, and vanilla was grown on this island. However, the majority of the world’s vanilla beans are grown on the island of Madagascar. This is why you will sometimes see the beans labeled Madagascar Bourbon beans.  The term now means Vanilla planifolia beans grown anywhere except for Mexico. In Mexico they are called Mexican beans.

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What are Tahitian Beans

The finest quality Tahitian vanilla beans are grown in Tahiti. They are significantly different from the Bourbon or Mexican beans in both appearance and flavor, but they are both used the same way. Tahitian beans are typically more fruity and floral than Bourbon and Mexican beans, but they have less natural vanillin, the flavor we most often associate with vanilla. They are especially nice to use in fruit or cream desserts or in seafood dishes. They are considerably more expensive than Bourbon or Mexican beans.

Papua New Guinea also produces Tahitian beans. However, they are thinner, drier, and and not quite as intensely flavored as the true Tahitian beans. Because they are significantly less expensive, they are used to make most Tahitian vanilla extracts.

What is Pure Vanilla Extract

Pure vanilla extract is the concentrated flavor of vanilla beans. In the United States there is a Standard of Identity for pure vanilla extract. It requires that the extracts be made from 35% alcohol, a minimum of 13.38% vanilla bean extractives and purified water in order to be called pure vanilla extract.

Sugar, corn syrup, caramel color (which also contains sugar) and other additives are permitted and are supposed to be listed on the label, but frequently aren’t. If you are concerned about whether the extract you are using contains sweeteners, it is best to contact the manufacturer.

What is Vanilla Flavor

Vanilla that does not contain alcohol is not allowed to be called pure vanilla extract. Its correct name in the Standard of Identity is Vanilla Flavor or Pure Vanilla Flavor. It is most frequently made with propylene glycol, a viscous, colorless liquid that has no flavor but has a slight sweetness to it. Vanilla flavor contains vanilla bean extractives and purified water. It may also contain sugar or corn syrup. Some individuals are allergic to propylene glycol, which can cause a rash in people sensitive to the chemical.

What Color is Pure Vanilla Extract

Pure vanilla extract is a light amber color. It can be difficult to see its color as it is most often sold in amber colored bottles in small sizes. Pour some into a clear container or into a small bowl then take it into bright light. If it does not contain caramel color, you will see that it is very clear and a light-to-medium amber color. You may also notice that it is slightly oily. That is from the natural volatile oils in the vanilla beans. If it is darker the extract probably contains caramel color.

Does Pure Vanilla Extract Contain Sugar

Most pure vanilla extracts do contain sugar or corn syrup as the sugar helps to soften the harsh nose of the alcohol. They also may contain caramel color, which also contains sugar. You will need to discuss this with the extract manufacturer or supplier to determine if it contains sweeteners.

Does Pure Vanilla Extract Contain GMO’s

This depends on the type of alcohol it is made from and if it has sweeteners in it. If it is made from sugar cane alcohol and does not contain corn syrup or beet sugar, it is GMO-free. If it contains grain alcohol, the alcohol is made from corn. If it is certified organic extract, the alcohol is probably GMO-free.  You will need to discuss this with the extract manufacturer or supplier for specific information.

Is Pure Vanilla Extract Gluten-Free

Unless the extract contains a wheat-based alcohol or has other additives, it is probably gluten-free. You will need to discuss this with the extract manufacturer or supplier to confirm that it is.

What is Clear or White Vanilla Extract

Clear or white vanilla extract is an imitation vanilla made from synthetic vanillin. In the United States it must be labeled “Imitation Vanilla”. In England imitation vanilla is usually labeled “Vanilla Essence.” In Mexico and all through the Americas, it is almost always labeled as vanilla extract or with other words that make purchasers believe it is pure vanilla. Chances are 99.9% that it is imitation.

What is Double or Triple Fold Vanilla

Vanilla extracts can come in single fold, which is the type that you purchase in small bottles, or it can be much two, three and four times stronger. The technical term is double, triple, etc. fold vanilla. It goes up to 20 fold, but it is far less stable after four-fold, so most manufacturers don’t use the really high-fold vanillas. When making multiple fold vanillas, more vanilla bean extractives are added to the mixture, but the same amount of alcohol as single fold is used. Bakeries, baked-goods manufacturers and the dairy and frozen dessert industries often use multiple-fold vanillas. Another advantage for using multiple-fold vanilla is to save money on long-distance shipping.

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Most home bakers use single-fold extracts, though some enjoy using double-strength because of its stronger flavor profile.

What are Natural Flavors

When you purchase frozen desserts, dairy products and processed cookies and cakes, you may notice that it sometimes says, “Natural Flavors” in the ingredients. This term indicates that the product probably has natural vanillin made from wheat germ extract or DNA created on a 3D printer mixed with highly genetically-engineered yeast. This is a loophole that some manufacturers use when producing products that appear to be made with pure vanilla. However, there are also products that may be called “Natural Vanilla Extracts.” This is a hybrid blend made with pure vanilla extract and natural vanillin sourced from plants other than vanilla beans. There are a number of plants that contain natural vanillin.

If the product is made in the US using Mexican beans and following the Standard of Identity, it is absolutely safe. There are a couple of extract producers in Mexico, but it isn’t easy to find their products. They are made in a safe manner. The rest of the so-called vanilla throughout the Americas is not regulated, so it’s difficult to know what’s in the bottle besides imitation vanillin.

In the 1980s there was a scare because producers used coumarin in the liquid Mexican vanillas. Coumarin is not toxic in minute amounts, but it is a probable carcinogen if used daily, which isn’t likely in the case of flavorings. Further, coumarin, which made the imitation vanilla smell more like  real vanilla, is now rarely used in Mexico. That said, dyes banned in the US and other additives that are sometimes put into the imitation vanillas could be toxic to sensitive people. Personally, the biggest issue with the cheap imitation vanilla is that it undercuts the farmers who are struggling to keep the vanilla industry alive.

Coumarin has never been applied to Mexican vanilla beans, so yes, they are perfectly safe. However, except in rare instances, such as in the Mexican vanilla growing region, vanilla beans are not easily available in Mexico at this time. Climate change and political unrest have both impacted the Mexican vanilla industry, and there is very little Mexican vanilla available. To complicate things further, vanilla beans from other origins, such as Madagascar, have been shipped to Mexico in recent years and sold as Mexican vanilla beans! Mexican beans often cost more than Madagascar beans. Some vanilla extract producers have customers who depend on Mexican extract to flavor their products. For this reason, there is a market for Mexican beans. Unfortunately, there is very little transparency in the vanilla industry, so issues such as this are difficult to trace.

There are two types of vanilla bean powder and two types of vanilla powder used in the vanilla industry. We’ll start with the vanilla bean powder. The first is pure ground vanilla bean powder. It is exactly what the name indicates. As the entire vanilla bean has flavor, it makes sense to grind the entire bean to use as a non-alcohol-based flavoring. The ground beans are often passed through a fine-mesh screen to assure that the powder specks are consistent in size. The ground powder works well to flavor foods and can be used in place of extract. It is often used in scone, cake, cocoa and other dry packaged mixes and granola. It can be added to sugar for beverages, but it does not dissolve.

The second vanilla bean powder is from expended (also known as exhausted) ground vanilla bean powder used in the extract making process. The ground powder is dried and sold to the frozen dessert and dairy manufacturers to use instead of freshly ground vanilla bean powder for vanilla bean ice cream and other products. The expended powder has very little, if any, flavor or fragrance but it’s very inexpensive, which is why it’s preferred by commercial manufacturers. Artisan gelato and ice cream producers frequently use the freshly ground vanilla bean powder.

Vanilla powders come in two forms: pure and imitation (synthetic). Pure vanilla powder is made by ribbon spraying pure vanilla extract onto dextrose powder. The powder is used to flavor hot beverages and as a substitute for pure vanilla extract. It is beige-to-light brown in color and is sweet.

Imitation vanilla powder is dried synthetic vanillin. Because it has no fragrance of its own, the powder often contains coumarin in European countries where coumarin is not banned, as coumarin has a vanilla-like aroma. Coumarin comes from the tree Dipteryx Odorata, a native of Central and northern South America, which also produces seeds known as tonka beans. Imitation vanilla powder smells good but has a bitter undertaste from the coumarin.

What is Vanilla Paste?

Vanilla paste is made from a combination of vanilla extract and ground vanilla bean powder. It is actually more like a runny glue than a paste and its ingredients vary by manufacturer. Some vanilla pastes are made from a multi-strength extract and freshly ground vanilla bean powder. It usually contains xanthan gum as a thickener and may also contain sugar or corn syrup. Some pastes may use the expended vanilla bean powder instead of the fresh. Vanilla paste can be substituted for either vanilla extract or ground vanilla bean powder. In some respects, it’s the perfect marriage between the two products. It does contain alcohol, but not at the same strength as extract.

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What is Vanilla Oleoresin?

Vanilla oleoresin is a highly concentrated form of vanilla, made by removing the solvent from vanilla extract. A solution of isopropanol is frequently used instead of ethanol for the preparation. Some aroma is lost during removal of the solvent, but the essential oils remain. Vanilla oleoresin is only used in non-food products. It is expensive but will impart the best aroma to perfumes, bath oils and soap.

What is Vanilla Absolute?

Vanilla absolute is the most concentrated form of vanilla. It is sometimes used in perfumes and other aroma-based products. Because it’s so expensive, nearly all candles, soaps, and other scented specialty merchandise, are made from synthetic vanillin. Vanilla Absolute is used in very high-end products in small quantities, often mixed with other fragrances in perfumes.  However, a little goes a long way.  If you are making perfumes, soaps or candles and you don’t want the cloying aroma of imitation vanilla, it may be worth investing in vanilla absolute.

What is vanilla essence?

Vanilla essence is similar to the absolute but made from extract, so it’s much less strong. It’s mainly used in beverages such as ice cream, custard and puddings. Where allspice and mint are often used to flavor beverages in the US and certain desserts in Europe, vanilla extract is more common for sweetened hot or cold drinks elsewhere. Vanilla essence is also preferred for use in alcoholic beverages where the alcohol can draw out some of the flavor from the extract. Vanilla essence is the term used in Australasia. In India, it is called Van Oudh Oil (vanilla-attar). Vanilla butter oil and vanilla poivre are used in the production of some liqueurs.

How do you make vanilla extract?

Making vanilla extract is very simple, but involves a month or so of waiting. There are three different methods:

1) Maceration – steep the beans in alcohol. 2) Imitation – use alcohol instead of water, to draw out and extract flavor from the beans with heat. 3) Reverse osmosis – use a solvent to remove flavor from alcohol, leaving water contaminated with vanilla flavor behind.

The first two methods require at least one month to create a consistent product. The third requires less time to do the same.

If you use the third method, you’ll have to be a little more careful with the alcohol content, as it’s impossible to completely remove all alcohol from alcohol-based extracts. Most manufacturers use ethyl alcohol or grain spirits (ethanol). Unlike vodka and other similarly high-proof spirit, grain spirits have a mild sweetness that is not overpowering and will not overwhelm your vanilla extract.

Is vanilla tasteless?

Nope, but it is not as sweet as sugar. If you use the whole bean instead of paste, the flavor will not be quite as strong, but you can use half the amount of paste than if you used whole beans. At least according to some people on the Internet.

Why does the vanilla bean keep its flavor for so long?

The flavor of the bean is concentrated during the drying process, and some of that flavor is lost during processing. Also, many companies use a synthetic flavoring that stays with it even after it’s been processed. This affects the kind of vanilla you get through the bean itself. There are also two kinds of real vanilla extract: Bourbon-vanilla and Hungarian-vanilla. Bourbon-vanilla is less expensive than Hungarian-vanilla, but if you choose to use bourbon as a medium for your extract, prepare yourself for what may seem very much like an inferior product.

When it comes to baking, the vanilla extract you choose is not that important. If you are making a cake with 600g of flour, 200g of sugar and 200g of butter, your choice of vanilla extract doesn’t matter that much. The flavor is going to be largely masked by everything else in the recipe. But if you are making a banana bread that’s only made up of about 100g flour, 100-200g sugar, 20-50g butter and 1 whole egg, then it makes a big difference what kind of vanilla extract you put in there. As long as it has some alcohol in it, you should be okay.