Plain vanilla? Hardly! This beloved spice, with its rich, fruity, complex flavor, has soared in popularity in recent years among cooks who are discovering many culinary uses beyond ice cream, cookies, and cakes. Vanilla can add a wondrous “What is it?” flavor to many vegetables and entrées. When it takes a starring role in an unexpected dish, many cooks turn not to the bottle of extract in the cupboard, but rather to its source: the vanilla bean. If you’ve never used vanilla in this form, you’re in for a treat.
The vanilla bean used in cooking is the cured seedpod of Vanilla planifolia or V. tahitensis, two of the ninety species in this genus of rather nondescript, vining orchids. Although about twenty-five species yield beans for commerce, most of these are of lower quality.
The finest vanilla in the world, V. planifolia, comes from Mexico. When the Spanish conquistador Cortés arrived in Mexico, he found the Aztecs enjoying hot chocolate brewed with vanilla beans and stirred with a cinnamon stick. Mexican chocolate still is flavored with vanilla and cinnamon.
Although V. planifolia was transplanted to other parts of the tropics, the plants at first failed to bear fruit. In Mexico, the fragrant, pale yellow flowers are pollinated only by a tiny bee and certain species of hummingbirds. Lack of natural pollinators had caused the failure of these early attempts to establish plantings.
In 1840, an African worker on the French island of Bourbon (now called Réunion) in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar devised a method of hand-pollinating vanilla flowers that is still used today. He inserted a small, pointed stick into a freshly opened flower. The pollen adhered to the stick and could then be transferred to the stigma. After fertilization, the vanilla bean develops quickly. “Bourbon” vanilla still signifies a vanilla of high quality.
Vanilla is now produced in several tropical countries. Madagascar is the leader —with about a million pounds of vanilla beans a year, while Mexico produces about a third as much. Good-quality, organically grown vanilla is currently being produced in Costa Rica, whereas that from Brazil and Venezuela is used primarily for scenting soaps and tobacco.
Tahiti’s vanilla beans come from V. tahitensis; their chemical makeup is said to differ from that of V. planifolia. Longer and thinner, they are also moister and fleshier, with a sweeter taste and a flowery fragrance. We have both kinds in our kitchen inventory and use them interchangeably with excellent results.
Growing and Curing
The vanilla vine in its natural habitat attaches itself to the trunks and limbs of trees by aerial rootlets. Cultivated vanilla is propagated by cuttings, which are planted around a host shade tree for support. The height can then be controlled for easier harvesting.
The beans are gathered when mature and still yellow-green. After being repeatedly dipped into hot water, they are stacked on a cloth and loosely covered. Alternating heat from the sun and cooling at night results in slight fermentation that develops the desired flavor over a period of several weeks, after which the beans are aged for several months. In some areas, modern processing plants now have shortened the curing period.
It is during this curing process that the beans develop vanillin crystals on the inside and outside of the pods. Vanillin, the principal flavor component of vanilla, has been synthesized commercially, first from clove oil and nowadays from wood pulp; nevertheless, the flavor of the whole bean is vastly superior to the synthetic flavoring, thanks to the presence of a host of other aromatic constituents.
Buying and Storing
Look for vanilla beans that are firm, shiny, moist, and dark in color; dried and dull-looking ones are probably old. Because improper storage, particularly excessive heat and light, can destroy the the fragile crystals of vanillin, do not leave vanilla beans in the cellophane bag or glass tube in which they’re often sold. Instead, we recommend that you store them in sugar in a dry, sealed container. In a few days, the sugar becomes heavily impregnated with vanilla flavor, and it can then be used in food or beverages. Bury one average-sized (5-inch) vanilla bean in 2 to 21/2 pounds of sugar. Vanilla beans have a long life when stored this way.
To store a large quantity of beans, place them in an airtight container and keep them as cool as possible—preferably in the refrigerator or freezer. Double-wrap the beans to protect them from drying out. Your fragrant cache should retain its flavor for years.
Vanilla beans may be used again and again. Look askance at a recipe that says to soak a vanilla bean in milk or other liquid and use the liquid, discarding the vanilla bean! Rinse it off, let it dry, and save it to reuse.
When traveling to vanilla-producing areas of the world, be sure to search out growers or vendors in local markets, where you’ll find beans at their freshest, loaded with vanillin crystals, and priced very reasonably. We have never had a problem bringing vanilla beans through customs as they are cured products, not living plants or even seeds.
In Mexico, some of the very best vanilla extract in the world is inexpensive. It’s sold in liquor stores. Choose the highest-priced vanilla extract that you can find with a label printed in English. (You should declare it when you leave the country, as it is classified as liquor.) Some of the cheap vanilla extracts offered for sale in marketplaces are adulterated with tonka beans (readily available in Mexico and Central America), which also contain coumarin, a substance that the Food and Drug Administration considers toxic if used to excess.
Making your own vanilla extract from vanilla beans is a simple matter. Place 2 cups of good brandy in a jar. Split four vanilla beans and scrape some of the seeds into the brandy, then place the beans in the jar as well. Seal the jar tightly and let it stand in a cool place for at least two months, shaking it from time to time.
Curious Culinary Combinations
Vanilla combines well with many foods. Vanillin is also found in small quantities in cloves, raspberries, strawberries, passion fruit, corn, tomatoes, and asparagus. Adding a touch of vanilla to any of them enhances the flavor that is present but may be imperceptible. Vanillin also occurs in rum, brandy, sake, and sherry.
The following recipes use vanilla in most unusual ways and demonstrate how this favorite flavor, in either extract or bean form, can make a contribution to every course in a meal, not just at dessert time. Wouldn’t Cortés be surprised to see how far this tasty native Mexican spice has come today?
If freshx herbs are not available, substitute dried ones at half the amount.
The following mail-order companies offer vanilla beans.
• Frontier Cooperative Herbs, Box 299, Norway, IA 52318. Catalog free.
• Gingham ’n Spice, Box 88-S2, Gardenville, PA 18926. Catalog $2.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321-4580. Catalog free.
• Redding’s Country Cabin, 13150 E. Hwy 421, Ronda, NC 28670. Catalog $2.
• The Ultimate Herb & Spice Shoppe, 111 Azalea, PO Box 395, Duenweg, MO 64841. Catalog $2.
Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay are a well-known pair of longtime chefs and herb gardeners who make their home in the tiny town of Round Top in central Texas.