Vanilla is one of those powerful ingredients we use all the time, but probably take for granted. Whether it's vanilla extract in your chocolate chip cookies or scraped vanilla beans for custard or ice cream, vanilla is called for in all kinds of recipes. With so many uses and so many different types of vanilla -- from "Bourbon" to Mexican -- vanilla is an omnipresent ingredient whose value cannot be overstated.
As ubiquitous as vanilla is, however, its origin isn't known to everyone. Do you know where vanilla comes from? Vanilla's origin story is anything but... er... vanilla.
Vanilla comes from an orchid.
Vanilla comes from orchids of the genus Vanilla. While the major species of vanilla orchids are now grown around the world, they originally came from Mesoamerica, including parts of modern day Mexico and Guatemala.
The vanilla orchid is a vine-like plant that grows up trees.The vine can grow up to 30 feet long. The most widely used orchid to produce vanilla is the Vanilla planifolia.
The Vanilla planifolia, or Flat-Leaved Vanilla , is the only orchid used for industrial food production. The plant part that is used is the pod.
The vanilla pod is frequently referred to as the bean. The pods are picked when they are still not ripe, and then plunged into hot water and laid out to dry for anywhere from two to six months.
The vanilla pod contains thousands of tiny black seeds.
While these pods can be very expensive, scraping them yields a potent vanilla flavor and the black specs that will color whatever you're baking. They're definitely worth the splurge.
Vanilla extract comes from macerating vanilla beans and mixing them with water and alcohol.
It's the most commonly purchased form of vanilla and much cheaper than vanilla beans.
Vanilla can only grow 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Only 10 to 20 degrees?! It's a very picky plant. Most vanilla today comes from Madagascar and the island of Réunion. Seventy-five percent of vanilla on the market today is derived from vanilla plants in Madagascar and Réunion. It is commonly known as Bourbon vanilla, named for the island Réunion, which was formally named Île Bourbon.
The rest of the world's vanilla crop comes from Mexico and Tahiti. Vanilla from these countries is much harder to get ahold of. Mexican vanilla is supposed to be smoother, darker and richer than vanilla from Madagascar, and Tahitian vanilla is said to have more floral notes.
Vanilla is the second most-expensive spice, after saffron.
Like saffron, vanilla is very labor intensive to produce. In order for vanilla orchids to produce pods (commonly referred to as beans), the plant must be pollinated by hummingbirds or a specific species of bees native to Central America. Furthermore, the flowers are only open for a short period of time. In order to harvest vanilla commercially, therefore, the plants must be hand-pollinated.
While chocolate may be superior to vanilla in all ways, vanilla is still pretty great. The fact that it comes from a beautiful, delicate orchid makes it that much better.
Mexican Vanilla Pods Grade A (Gourmet) Length: 7-8 inches (20cm - 22 cm)