ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel


Updated on March 26, 2012
Vanilla Beans - dried and ready for culinary use.
Vanilla Beans - dried and ready for culinary use. | Source


Thomas Jefferson Portrait by Thomas Sully
Thomas Jefferson Portrait by Thomas Sully

A bit of history...

If you ask people what their favorite flavor is, chances are they'll respond with 'chocolate'. Vanilla however consistently ranks at the top of most polls as the most popular flavor of sweets and baked goods. Vanilla is often used to describe a Plain Jane situation, but true vanilla is anything but simplistic. Like chocolate, it is most often seen in sweet dishes, but it is just as appealing when making savory appearances. So what is vanilla?

Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the largest flowering plant family in the world - orchids. It is harvested from the seed pods of two tropical members of the species, commonly known as Tahitian or Bourbon. These are the only two types that are grown commercially, although there are well over 100 different members of the vanilla family.

Centuries ago The Totonaca and Olmeca peoples of the Gulf Coast of Mexico were the first to use vanilla in beverages and to domesticate it for cultivation. Both peoples considered vanilla as sacred and as gifts from the gods, and used the plant in sacred ceremonies, as parts of amulets and in temples for the fragrance.

In the early 1500's, vanilla beans left Mexico, bound for Spain, where it was initially used as a perfume, and later as a flavoring, and it gained rapid popularity. Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing vanilla to the US on a return trip from Europe as ambassador to France.

Immature vanilla pods on the plant.
Immature vanilla pods on the plant. | Source
The vanilla plant.
The vanilla plant. | Source

About the plants...

Vanilla is native to tropical South and Central America more specifically to Mexico, although it is now grown in multiple locations throughout the world. Soil and climate changes in various locations lead to subtle, but distinct flavor and aroma variations. Therefore, you'll often see very distinct locations in the branding of different vanillas - i.e. Mexican, Madagascar, Indonesian etc. No matter where the beans come from, good beans should have a distinctive, rich, full aroma, and be smooth in appearance. They should also be quite pliable - you should be able to bend them without breaking them. Don't buy vanilla beans that show signs of being dry (wrinkled), brittle or those which have a 'smoky' or musky smell.

Because growing vanilla involves a minimum of three years for the plants to develop, and the pods require a nine month on-the-vine development, growing vanilla is extremely labor intensive, leading to the high cost (second only to saffron!). After harvest, the beans must be 'killed' or cured correctly by drying in order to fully develop the signature vanilla aroma and taste. Once dried, the beans have reduced to 1/5 their original size, but they are now the familiar dark color and sport the rich, intense aroma for which they are prized.

Almost all vanilla beans, regardless of the location where they are grown, originated in Mexico. The exception is Tahitian beans, which are considered distinct botanically, although even the root stock for this species had origins in Mexico. Therefore, Mexican vanilla, if grown in Indonesia, is Indonesian. Only vanilla grown in Mexico is known as Mexican - which is one of the finest in the world.

The US is the world's largest consumer of vanilla, followed closely by France. The US dairy industry is one of the largest consumers of our vanilla imports, using it liberally in ice cream, drinks and yogurts. Other uses involve a myriad of food applications, but also in fragrances of all kinds. Most labels which identify 'vanilla flavoring' actually contain imitation vanilla. "Natural" vanilla flavor is often a mix of real and imitation vanilla, whereas pure vanilla is often proudly labeled as such, often with the country of origin. Taste of few of these side by side, and you'll quickly realize why true vanilla is so highly prized, and can command premium prices. There's nothing like it in the world.

Homemade vanilla extract.
Homemade vanilla extract. | Source
Vanilla Powder
Vanilla Powder | Source

Forms of Vanilla

Most of the time you'll encounter vanilla in two forms - either the whole bean as pictured at the top of the article or in an extract. The whole beans are primarily used by splitting the bean and scraping out the tons of tiny seeds - the tiny black dots you see in high quality vanilla products such as ice cream. Those bitty dots are gorgeous little flecks of flavor.

You'll also see vanilla extract - in which vanilla beans have been steeped in alcohol in order to capture the flavor. Because the alcohol is the vehicle by which the flavor is delivered, if you add vanilla extract to hot ingredients, you run the risk of the alcohol evaporating and having the flavor dissipate too much. Always look for 'pure' vanilla extract - keep away from anything labeled 'imitation' or vanilla 'flavoring'. The flavors are harsh and rather bitingly 'chemical' in nature.

Other than these, if you wish to get a bit more adventurous, look for some of the other form in which vanilla has begun appearing in recent years. Many times these can be found in specialty or high end grocery stores, and of course there are numerous online sources.

Ground vanilla beans are just what it sounds like - whole vanilla beans which have been ground. Don't confuse this with vanilla powder - ground vanilla is pure vanilla. The flavor is unbelievable, intense and heavenly. It's not sweetened, and doesn't dissolve completely, but the flavor makes it worth the trade off.

Vanilla powder on the other hand is a powder made from dextrose or sucrose, which has been sprayed with vanilla extract. It is sweetened by nature of the base powder, and the flavor and aroma are lighter than in other products.

Vanilla paste is a mix of intense vanilla extract and ground vanilla beans. It's a thick liquid, not truly a paste, and it wonderful to use in baking where you want an intense, pure vanilla flavor. It is often used in applications involving cream - ice cream, custards and puddings.

Use and Storage

Use the whole bean! Every bit of the beans are full of flavor. If you only need the seeds scraped out for one recipe, make sure that you save the pods for use in another. You can steep the pod in hot liquid - coffee, cream or tea - for a beautiful additional flavor.

If you've used a pod, rinse and dry it. It can then be added to a sugar container or coffee tin, and it will continue to impart flavor, although admittedly less intense. If you come across beans that have dried out, you can rehydrate them. Simply soak them in the liquid your recipe calls for. Alternately you can use a spice or coffee grinder to grind over-dry vanilla pods for use in recipes in place of, or in addition to vanilla extract or paste.

Vanilla is typically thought of as a flavor to be paired with sweets - but try it in savory dishes as well. It's particularly lovely in sauces.

Store vanilla beans indefinitely in a cool dry place. Don't refrigerate them - this increases the likelihood of the beans mildewing. Simply use an airtight container or jar, and keep them out of direct sunlight. Check them occasionally for moisture, which can lead to mold. If you happen to cut open beans that show signs of having developed crystals inside - then celebrate! These occur naturally in some types of Bourbon vanilla beans which have stored for some time. These are beautiful in taste - have a party!


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Rose West profile image

      Rose West 

      7 years ago from Michigan

      So fascinating! I love vanilla (though I am a chocoholic). I had no idea it came from the orchid family!

    • Lauryallan profile image


      7 years ago

      I really like how you've laid your hub out and it was really interesting. I didn't know any of that about vanilla. Thank you.

    • RedElf profile image


      7 years ago from Canada

      Super hub - I had no idea about the origins of vanilla, but it is certainly one of my favorite flavors (not in ice-cream, though unless it's home-made). I always use real vanilla :D

    • JT Walters profile image

      JT Walters 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Good Hub.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)