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What is Vanilla?

Updated on October 13, 2013
Good vanilla pods are deep brown or black long and narrow, somewhat wrinkled, moist, waxy supple and immediately fragrant.
Good vanilla pods are deep brown or black long and narrow, somewhat wrinkled, moist, waxy supple and immediately fragrant. | Source

Vanilla was discovered by South American Indians long before the Spaniards conquered them in the 16th century and they used it to flavor chocolate.

The Spaniards conquistadors drank chocolate flavored with vanilla at the court of Moctezuma. The Spaniards took home the vanilla and chocolate with them and ever since that time it has been used to flavor confectionery, cakes, biscuits and ice cream.

They also gave the fruit its name: Vanilla – is the diminutive of “vaina” meaning pod.

Vanilla pods come from a tropical climbing orchid native to Mexico.

The plant bears pale green flowers capable of being pollinated only by a particular bee or a specific humming bird native to Mexico.

Vanilla pods are the unripe yellow pods of this exotic orchid and they are sweated in barrels before being sun-dried and graded.

Highly aromatic vanilla is used in perfumery and for scenting tobacco.

Vanilla Planifolia

Buying and storing

You are likely to get good quality pods from a spice merchant than a supermarket. Store away from the light in an airtight container vanilla pods will keep for 2 years or more.

When buying vanilla extract look for bottles labeled natural vanill extract with an indication of alcohol content usually 35 per cent by volume.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because like saffron, its production is very labour intensive. Pollination of the plants has to be done by hand, harvesting pods is difficult and there is a lengthy curing process.


Fresh vanilla pods have no aroma or taste.

After fermentation they develop a rich , mellow intensely perfumed aroma with hints of liquorice or tobacco matched by a delicate sweetly fruity or creamy flavor.

In its pure form it is one of the world’s finest flavourings but don’t confuse it with vanilla essence which is an artificial product made with eugenol, extracted from oil of cloves

Flavoured Vanilla Sugar

Rather than buy expensive packets of vanilla sugar, caster sugar can be flavoured beautifully simply by putting a vanilla pod in the jar.
Rather than buy expensive packets of vanilla sugar, caster sugar can be flavoured beautifully simply by putting a vanilla pod in the jar.

Culinary Uses

The best pods have a light, white frosting call givre of vanillin crystals.

  • Whole or split pods are used to flavor creams, custards and ice cream.

The presence of tiny black specks indicates authenticity. A whole vanilla pod that has been infused in a syrup or cream can be rinsed, dried and reused.

  • Vanilla flavours cakes, tarts and syrups used for poaching fruit.

Cut pods can be laid over fruit to be baked in the oven.

  • Vanilla’s original use with chocolate is still widely practiced and it also enriches tea and coffee.
  • Vanilla is less commonly thought of as a spice for savoury foods but it goes well with seafood, particularly lobster, scallops and mussels and with chicken.

It enhances the sweetness of root vegetables and in Mexico it is used with black beans.

  • Good with apples, melon, peaches, pears, rhubarb strawberries, fish and seafood cream milk and eggs.
  • Combines well with cardamom, chillies, cinnamon cloves and saffron.


Vanilla pods are picked when they began to turn yellow.

Further maturation is prevented by plunging them into boiling water, then they are sun dried by day and sweated by night, wrapped in blankets.

The pods shrivel and darken and enzymes cause a chemical change that produces aromatic compounds notably vanillin .

About 5kg (11lb) of fresh pods yields 1 kg (2.2lb) of cured vanilla.

Today vanilla is exported from Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti and Indonesia.

  • Bourbon vanilla - from Madagascar and Reunion has a rich, creamy flavor.
  • Mexican vanilla- was traditionally considered to be most delicate and complex.
  • Tahitian vanilla- smells heady, floral and fruity.
  • Indonesian vanilla has a smoky, strong flavor.


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    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Vanilla has great taste but should be used a little at a time with its unique taste. Informative and useful about vanilla.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

      I love vanilla beans! Lately, we've been using vanilla paste just because it's less expensive and still adds yummy flavor to desserts. What an interesting Hub--thank you!

    • profile image

      stessily 5 years ago

      MM Del Rosario: Thank you for this interesting presentation on vanilla, one of my all-time favorite food enhancers.

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 6 years ago from Northern California

      Mm, my favorite flavoring! Don't forget to cite the sources of the photos! :)

    • stars439 profile image

      stars439 6 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

      Neat hub. God Bless You.

    • Jimmy Evola profile image

      Jimmy Evola 6 years ago from Australia

      Cool Hub, very interesting

    • jojokaya profile image

      jojokaya 6 years ago from USA

      Very informative hub. Rated up

    • samiaali profile image

      samiaali 6 years ago

      What a wonderfully informative hubpage! I have actually wondered exactly where vanilla came from and you have answered my questions. Thank you! :)

    • DeBorrah K. Ogans profile image

      DeBorrah K Ogans 6 years ago

      MM Del Rosario, Interesting and informative hub on the many uses for vanilla! Thank You for sharing, Peace & Blessings!

    • k_phuma profile image

      k_phuma 6 years ago from Botswana, Francistown

      i didn't know that there is different variety of vanilla...i would love to have them someday

    • chspublish profile image

      chspublish 6 years ago from Ireland

      A highly prized flavouring. I can almost smell it...mmmm.glorious and it's great that it's used for the perfumery industry also.