Frequently Asked Questions About Vanilla
Here are some of the questions that I’m most frequently asked about vanilla. These are the short answers. If you have questions about specific products, be sure to read the descriptions posted with each product. If you are interested in more in-depth information about vanilla, check out the Queen’s book, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the Worlds Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. Any serious cook or baker as well as anyone interested in the history of food, will find this book fascinating. You can get it here.
Q. What is vanilla?
A. Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the orchid family, which is the largest family of flowering plants in the world, with over 25,000 species and more than 100,000 hybrids worldwide. There are also at least 400-500 varieties of vanilla orchids that grow around the world, but only Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Tahitensis are used commercially. Occasionally Vanilla Pompona is used for perfume making.
Q. Why is vanilla so expensive?
A. Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world! It takes between 18 months and three years from planting a cutting of the orchid vine till the plant produces orchids. The orchids bloom and die within a few hours unless they are pollinated by hand. The beans (which are actually the ovary, which contains the seeds) must stay on the vine for nine months before being harvested. The beans then go through a curing, drying, and resting process for several months. Each vanilla bean is handled hundreds of times before it’s ready to be shipped from the tropics to Europe or the United States!
Q. Where does vanilla come from?
A. Originally vanilla came from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It’s a fruit of the Americas. Now it grows in many tropical countries around the world. There are vanilla varieties growing worldwide, but the majority of the varieties used worldwide come from the Americas, where the contain the most
Q. Can we grow vanilla in the United States?
A. That depends on where you live. Vanilla thrives between 10 and 20 degrees either side of the Equator. So vanilla can be grown in Puerto Rico, South Florida, and Hawaii. Vanilla can also be grown in greenhouses, but it’s tricky to get the vines to flower and fruit. It’s definitely a tropical orchid and it doesn’t do well in temperatures below 50 degrees.
Q. Can vanilla be grown from seeds?
A. No, it must be grown from cuttings. Contact the American Orchid Society if you live in the US to find out where you can get an orchid plant. It is difficult to find vanilla cuttings in the U.S.
Q. Does Mexico still grow vanilla?
A. Yes, though Mexico now produces much less vanilla than the other major vanilla-producing countries. Deforestation is a big issue for Mexican farmers as the region is hotter and less humid than when it had more forest cover. Climate change is causing weather extremes that are causing serious problems for the Mexican industry.
Q. Why are Mexican and Caribbean vanillas so much cheaper than vanillas from other places?
A. Nearly all the liquid vanilla from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean countries is imitation. Never mind what the labels say. The fact is that label laws are non-existent or aren’t enforced. These are poor countries taking advantage of Mexico’s early reputation as the producer of the best vanilla in the world. Unless the bottle as 35% alcohol in it, it is not pure vanilla extract. Read more about this here.
Q. Is vanilla from Mexico and the Caribbean dangerous?
A. Coumarin, which was often found in vanilla from Mexico and the Caribbean countries until recently can cause liver damage. Coumarin has been banned in the United States since the early 1950s. Most of the so-called vanilla extract from Mexico no longer has coumarin in it. It may, however, have red dyes which are banned for use in the United States. It contains chemicals and no pure vanilla.
Q. Where is most of the world’s vanilla grown?
A. Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla worldwide, followed by Papua New Guinea. Indonesia, Reunion and the Comoro Islands were, until recently, big producers as well. Vanilla is also grown in many other tropical countries, such as India, Fiji, Tonga, the Caribbean and East Africa. Tahiti, which has been the primary source of Tahitian vanilla, now produces only a small quantity of vanilla though Papua New Guinea produces Tahitian vanilla. It isn’t the same quality, however.
Q. Is vanilla fattening?
A. Vanilla is a flavor and therefore has very few calories. Unlike chocolate which is both a flavor and a food, only the extracted flavor of vanilla is used. More important is whether the food or beverage that is flavored with vanilla is fattening or not. If it’s a low-fat, low-sugar food, it probably isn’t fattening; if it’s a rich ice cream, it could be fattening. Because vanilla is such a big flavor, it makes low-fat food taste better. Studies have shown that the fragrance of vanilla actually helps to lower cravings for high-fat foods. So, if you want to lose weight, carry a vanilla bean with you and smell its intoxicating fragrance to help you not eat that extra chocolate bar or piece of pie.
Q. What are the equivalents for a vanilla bean versus vanilla extract?
A. It’s a little tricky to compare a vanilla bean to extract. The bean offers a fuller flavor but the extract is a little stronger. In general, 1/2 vanilla bean is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Q. Why is vanilla so unique?
A. Vanilla has more than 250 organic components that comprise its distinctive flavor and fragrance. It actually has at least 500 components, only about 250 have been positively identified. Although scientists have been trying to genetically clone and reproduce vanilla in a laboratory environment for the past 25 years, they haven’t been able to capture the elusive and distinctive qualities that make it so very popular.
Q. Isn’t synthetic vanilla just as good?
A. Synthetic vanilla contains only one organic component – vanillin – the flavor and fragrance that we most associate with vanilla. Vanillin makes up about 25% of the flavor and fragrance bouquet. Because pure vanilla contains so many other flavor and fragrance components, it has a much richer smell and taste than vanillin does by itself. Synthetic vanillin just doesn’t compare with the “real deal.”
Q. Is Bourbon Vanilla made from Bourbon?
A. No. Vanilla contains at least 35% alcohol, but it’s sugar cane or ethyl alcohol, not that famous whiskey from Kentucky. The name Bourbon (pronounced bur-bone) comes from the period when the island of Reunion was ruled by the Bourbon kings of France. Bourbon now means Vanilla planifolia beans from regions other than Mexico.
Q. Why does vanilla contain so much alcohol?
A. Alcohol is the most efficient agent for extracting the flavor from the beans. Although most of the alcohol burns off in cooked foods, the flavor remains intact as the alcohol is simply the carrier for the flavor. The FDA requires that pure vanilla extract must contain at least 35% alcohol.
Q. Are there non-alcoholic vanilla extracts?
A. Yes and no. There are non-alcoholic vanillas but the FDA requires that they not be labeled Pure Vanilla Extract as they don’t contain alcohol. They are usually called Vanilla Flavor, are made in a glycerin base or propylene glycol, and usually contain as much vanilla bean extractives as vanilla extracts. They provide a reasonable non-alcoholic solution for flavoring foods and beverages.
Q. What’s Tahitian Vanilla?
A. Tahitian vanilla is a blend of Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla odorata that was taken to Tahiti in 1847. It is now considered its own species of vanilla, Vanilla tahitensis. Tahitian beans are fatter, moister, and sweeter, with less natural vanillin and other components not as prevalent in Vanilla planifolia. As a result, it’s very fruity and floral. Unfortunately, Tahitians have replaced much of their vanilla with other crops so Tahitian vanilla is very expensive.
Q. What is French Vanilla?
A. French vanilla is not a type of vanilla. It is a term used to describe an egg-custard base for ice cream. However, because it sounds exotic or romantic – especially in the perfume industry – it’s often used to describe perfumes, candles and other specialty products.
Q. Is there a difference in flavor between Tahitian, Bourbon and Mexican vanilla?
A. There’s a significant difference between Tahitian vanilla and Bourbon and Mexican vanillas because they’re different species, but there’s also a difference between the same species of vanilla depending upon where it’s grown. Vanilla’s flavors are affected by rain, soil, amount of sun, etc. in the same way as grape varietals are different when they are planted in different locations. This is called terroir. While most of us can’t detect a perceptible difference between vanilla beans grown 20 miles apart, some vanilla specialists can detect the difference.
Q. Does vanilla have any alleged medicinal value?
A. Since early times the indigenous people who cultivated vanilla have used it as medicine. They used it to calm the stomach, to treat asthma, congestion, and coughs, and even as a salve for syphilis. Up until the early years of the 20th century vanilla was used in the pharmacy to calm upset stomachs. In fact, Coca Cola syrup was often used as a stomach sedative, and later, Coke was substituted for calming the effects of nausea. The reason? Coca Cola contains vanilla! Vanilla is now used medicinally, especially by naturopathic doctors. It alleviates symptoms of sickle cell anemia in lab tests, but it doesn’t survive the digestive barrier.
Q. Does vanilla have any value in aromatherapy?
A. You bet! It calms the nerves and soothes the spirit. Sloan Kettering hospital pioneered experiments with fragrances to soothe patients going through MRI testing. They found that it helped patients endure the claustrophobic effects of MRIs. I carry a vanilla bean with me when I have annual MRI’s and I leave the bean for the technicians to use with other patients. The aroma of vanilla is calming to animals as well as humans.
Q. Is vanilla an aphrodisiac?
A. Legend has it that it is. In Mesoamerica, only royalty was served beverages with vanilla as they believed that they were the most deserving of its alleged benefits. Documents from the 18th and 19th century make reference to vanilla as an aphrodisiac for men, especially when it was made into a tincture. And tests conducted in the 1990s at the Institute for Smell and Taste in Chicago found that the aroma was a powerful stimulant to men. “The proof is in the pudding,” as they say; try wearing some vanilla perfume, serve a luscious dessert laced with the extract or place some vanilla beans on your pillows and see how the evening turns out!
Q. Do your vanillas contain sugar? If so, how much?
A. Vanilla is naturally sweet and really doesn’t need sugar. However, when it was made at the apothecary shops it was more like a tincture, and contained 25% or more sugar. Some companies use sugar or corn syrup in their extracts while others don’t, and the amount of sweetener and/or caramel coloring varies. We don’t use sugar, corn syrup or caramel coloring in our extracts. The FDA requires that all ingredients be listed on the label, but it isn’t necessary to list the quantity of each ingredient. A lot of companies disregard the rules and don’t list whether they have sugar, corn syrup or caramel coloring in their extract. Consequently, it can be difficult to determine how much sugar is in vanilla extract unless you ask the manufacturer.
Q. I love the flavor of vanilla, but I’m on a diet and don’t want to use it in fattening foods. Any suggestions?
A. Vanilla is perfect for brightening otherwise bland or flavorless dishes. It accentuates foods and beverages and adds a natural sweetness as well. It’s perfect for enhancing protein drinks, enlivens low- and non- fat foods, and is a great adjunct to lots of savory foods too. Be sure to check our recipes here for beverages, side dishes, savory entrees and other delicious foods that aren’t fattening.
Q. What’s the best way to store vanilla extract and beans?
A. Extracts should be kept in a cool, dark place as light can affect it. A cupboard that’s away from the heat of the oven is fine. Vanilla beans also should be kept in a cool dark place, but they should also be kept dry so that they don’t mold. Storing them in a small jar or in plastic is usually fine, but if you live in a humid climate you may want to wrap them in waxed paper then place in a jar. Do not refrigerate or freeze extracts or beans as this can damage the extract and cause the beans to crystallize or dry.
Q. My vanilla beans have gotten very dry. Are they any good?
A. Yes. When the beans are soaked in liquid they will plump up again. For instance, if you’re making custard, warm them in the milk or cream. Another option is to grind the beans and use the ground beans to flavor sugar, coffee, tea, or a dessert. You can also put dry beans in a jar with sugar. They will absorb some of the moisture of the sugar and regain some moisture as well.
Q. How long does extract remain good?
A. Vanilla extract will last several years as long as it’s not exposed to bright light or temperature extremes. Because of its high alcohol content, it’s like good whiskey or brandy; it gets better with age for about two years and then levels off. However, if it’s exposed to heat or light, it will degrade some. There is no expiration date for pure vanilla extract.
Q. Why should people buy sustainably grown vanilla beans?
A. Actually, almost all vanilla worldwide is grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, but it isn’t certified because the growers don’t have the money to pay for the annual inspection and certification fees. This is often the case with coffee and cocoa as well. The continued use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides slowly erodes the quality of the soil. Tropical soils are not deep, nutrient-rich soils. They typically have thin topsoil, which is easily eroded during heavy rainstorms. Because so much tropical soil has been degraded due to over-farming, slash and burn techniques, and clear-cutting of tropical forests, the soil has continually been compromised. The soils are no longer mineral-rich and cannot sustain a high level of health for the people who eat the crops grown in compromised soil.
Sustainable gardening includes feeding the soil with nutrient-rich humus and compost. This, in turn, makes for healthier plants that can produce flowers and fruits in roughly half the time that it takes to grow in traditional tropical soils. The cycle in organic farming supports the soil and produces better products. By purchasing sustainably produced products, we are supporting a win-win situation for the land, the growers, and the consumers.
Q. I was recently given a bottle of vanilla by someone who had just returned from Haiti. The material is thick like a light syrup and dark. I was told it was vanilla concentrate. What can you tell me about it?
A. This is imitation vanillin made from a coal tar base. As it may contain ingredients that we’ve banned in the United States, my suggestion is to throw it away.
Rain’s Choice vanilla beans have been fairly traded and sustainably grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Unfortunately, the cost of organic and/or fair trade certification of beans is more expensive than most farmers can afford. We do our best to purchase clean products.
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