Ah yes, the exotic vanilla bean and its’ never-ending allure. The sweet, seductive taste and aroma of vanilla has been coveted for centuries to enhance the flavor of food and beverages. But what makes this unique plant matter so attractive? Why is its contribution to every dish so unparalleled?
In this article, we’ll be breaking down this extraordinary bean from plant to pod to explain its impact on flavor, history, and culture. To keep this article at a considerable length, we’ll be sticking to the topic of vanilla as it pertains to food and beverages.
What is Vanilla?
Vanilla is a flavoring/aroma agent culminated from the fruit of a vanilla orchid. While there are well over 100 plant species under the Vanilla genus, the variety we use most frequently to enhance food is derived from the Vanilla Plainfolia plant.
The Vanilla Planifolia plant grows beans (or specks) inside little pods about half a foot long. Both bean and pod provide attractive flavoring components but the bean tends to get most the credit for its’ vanillin composition (discussed later).
Composed of 170 compounds, it’s near impossible to articulate exactly why vanilla flavor is so crave-able (1). It is a testament to the natural wonders of the world that something so elegant can be so complex and delicious.
Where Does Vanilla Come From?
Most scholars will agree that vanilla orchids originated in Mexico but the exact location is relatively unknown. Having so many species under one genus means there are probably many locations where this exotic plant grew.
The Totonac people, an indigenous group located in the east of Mexico, are thought to be the first to cultivate and use vanilla beans for flavoring. It is said that the Totonacs would present them as gifts to the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, who was quite taken by the bean’s unique flavor.
From here its hidden attractions were spread via trade and conquest. Despite it’s known value, it thrives only in locations near the equator with just the right amount of humidity.
Vanilla Flavor Explained
As discussed above there are approximately 170 compounds inside the vanilla bean. Through research, we’ve been able to derive four primary flavor compounds in the vanilla bean: vanillin, 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, vanillic acid and 4-hydroxybenzoic acid (2).
It’s important to note that these 4 flavor compounds do not completely account for the complexity of the vanilla bean, but act as the main distinguishing characteristics for the limits of the human palate.
Vanillin is the most dominant flavor compound in vanilla and is responsible for that characteristic “vanilla” taste we all associate vanilla with. It’s a phenolic compound that occurs naturally in the bean and can also be artificially synthesized. The other compounds create spicy and woodsy characters to add to the complexity of the flavor.
Put together, and these 4 compounds form a symphony of flavor that is unparalleled in the culinary realm.
With vanilla being so highly coveted (and expensive), how do we find it so readily available everywhere. Well, the vanilla you may be familiar with may have not been derived from the natural vanilla plant.
There is a high demand for vanilla flavoring across the world, so to meet this demand, manufacturers have created a way to synthetically produce vanillin. Using mostly crude oil, wood pulp or clove oil, we are able to extract synthetic vanillin in high proportions to accommodate the commercial need.
While not as desirable as the real thing, synthetic vanillin is a much cheaper alternative and can be found in many processed foods.
Why is Vanilla So Expensive?
Putting it all together, real vanilla is so expensive because of its time consuming maturation process, climate constraints for growth and its attraction from countries all over the world.
It has limited availability and yet everyone wants it. Supply cannot meet demand and so prices rise. A simple yet economical proof for the high price.
Practical Uses for Vanilla You Didn’t Know About
Besides flavoring food, there are a few other practical uses for vanilla. Did you know that it can be used as an air freshener or to reduce stress levels?
Vanilla essential oil is often used in aromatherapy because of its calming and relaxing properties. It’s said to be able to ease anxiety, stress and promote a good night’s sleep.
How to Get Your Hands on Real Vanilla
You’ll find plenty of places to find real vanilla online, but be careful. Make sure you’re getting your beans from a reputable source and that they are fair trade and organic.
Beanilla has awesome reviews and has been around since 2005. You can also find some reputable vanilla bean source on Amazon but make sure and do your research. Check the reviews to make sure people have had a good experience with the vendor. Also make sure to look if the reviews seem genuine or if they appear fake or company-created. .
Well there you have it. A brief yet revealing story to explain what this magnificent plant is and why we love it so much. From its humble beginnings in Mexico, to being enjoyed by people all over the world, vanilla is a flavor that everyone can enjoy.
So the next time you’re savoring a delicious slice of vanilla cake or indulging in a scoop of vanilla ice cream, take a moment to admire the flavor that has us all mesmerized.