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Jewish Recipes --> Spices and Ingredients -- > Vanilla

Vanilla is a flavoring, in its pure form known as vanillin, derived from orchids in the genus Vanilla. The name came from the Spanish word "vainilla", diminutive form of "vaina" (meaning "sheath"), which is in turn derived from Latin "vagina".

Vanilla pods are the fruit of the vanilla planifolia, the only orchid to produce an edible substance. Vanilla pods are long, thin and filled with beans that are virtually flavorless in their unripened state. The pods must be cured for several months until vanillin crystals are emitted. The fragrance from the vanillin permeates the inside of the pod which eventually turns dark brown. The beans are then scraped from the inside of the pod and are ready for use.

The vanilla plants and their pollination

The main species harvested for vanillin is Vanilla planifolia. It is a native of Mexico, though now widely grown throughout the tropics. Madagascar is the world's largest producer. Additional sources include Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitiensis (grown in Tahiti).

Vanilla is a vine: it grows by climbing over some existing tree, pole, or other support. It can be grown in a wood (on trees), in a plantation (on trees or poles; possibly alternating with rows of sugar cane), or in a "shader", in increasing orders of productivity. If left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support; every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downwards so that the plant stays at heights accessible by a standing human.

The part of the plant in which the distinctive flavor compounds are found is the fruit, resulting from the pollination of the flower. One flower produces one fruit. Vanilla planifolia flowers are hermaphrodite: they carry both male (anther) and female (stigma) organs; however, to avoid self-polarization (which would tend to result in genetic deficiencies), a membrane separates those organs. Such flowers may only be naturally pollinated by a specific bee found in Mexico. Growers have tried to bring this bee into other growing locales, to no avail. The only way to produce fruits is thus artificial pollination.

A simple and efficient artificial pollination method was introduced in 1841 by a 12 year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion, then a French colony, in the Indian Ocean. This method is still used today. Using a needle, an agricultural worker folds back the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, then presses the anther on the stigma. The flower is then self-palletized, and will produce a fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, thus growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a human-intensive task.

The fruit (a bean), if left on the plant, will ripen and open at the end; it will then exhaust the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, which, in ripe fruits, carry the vanilla flavor. These black seeds are the tiny black "dust" one may find in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla. Vanilla planifolia seeds will not germinate in normal ground; they need a certain symbiotic mushroom.

Growers reproduce the plant by cutting: they cut off parts of the plants, plant them in the ground and wait for them to grow new roots.


Green (unripe) fruits do not have the distinctive vanilla smell or taste. Ripe fruits have it, but they are open, leak their innards, and cannot be conserved. There is thus a need to prepare green fruits in order to obtain the vanilla taste without the fruit opening or risking deterioration.

The production process introduced on Réunion island in the 19th century is as follows:

1. The beans are heated up (65°C for 3 minutes). This kills them and stops their natural processes.
2. After being shortly dried of dampness, the beans are stored in wooden boxes with blankets for 4 months. They then get a deep brown color.
3. The beans are dried, using an oven or the Sun. They have to be sorted (by hand) periodically: beans still not sufficiently dry continue drying; but beans excessively dried are unusable.
4. The beans are sorted by category. The largest, well formed beans are kept to be sold whole. The broken, smallest etc. ones are for being turned into vanilla extract or powder.
5. The beans are left to mature for about 8 months in wooden boxes. They have to be periodically inspected for rot (or dampness, which may result in rot). At the end of this process, they acquire the distinctive vanilla taste.

The whole preparation process is, as pollination, rather human intensive.

The weight of matured vanilla at the end of the process is approximately one fourth of that of the green vanilla beans used at the beginning. In some regions producing vanilla, such as Réunion Island, some unscrupulous merchants sell "big" (wide, fat) vanilla beans to tourists; these beans are unmatured vanilla, thus don't have the vanilla taste, and are not usable for cuisine without a lengthy preparation.


Vanilla was a highly regarded flavoring in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and was brought back to Europe (and from there the rest of the world) by the Spanish Conquistadors.

In ancient Mexico the Totonac people were regarded as the producers of the best vanilla. The Totonac are from the region that is now known as the state of Veracruz (Papantla, Mexico, holds itself out as the origin of vanilla). They continued to be the world's chief producers of the flavoring through the mid 19th century. At that time, French vanilla growers in Mexico traded their knowledge of artificial pollination of flowers for the Totonac knowledge of preparing the beans.

The Coca-Cola Corporation is the world's largest customer of natural vanilla extract. When New Coke was introduced in 1985, the economy of Madagascar crashed, and only recovered after New Coke flopped. The reason was that New Coke used vanillin, a less expensive synthetic substitute, and purchases of vanilla more than halved during this period. By 2002, the company introduced Vanilla Coke, which is Coca-Cola with higher concentrations of vanilla flavor.

The market price of vanilla rose dramatically in the late 1970s due to a typhoon. Prices stayed stable at this level through the early 1980s due to the pressure of recently introduced Indonesian vanilla. In the mid 1980s the cartel that had controlled vanilla prices and distribution since its creation in 1930 disbanded. Prices dropped 70% over the next few years to nearly $20 USD per kilo. This changed due to typhoon Huddah, which struck early in the year 2000. The typhoon, political instability, and poor weather in the third year drove vanilla prices to an astonishing $500 USD per kilo in 2004. A good crop coupled with decreased demand have pushed the market price down to the $40 per kilo range in the middle of 2005.


Though there are many compounds present in the extracts of vanilla, the compound predominantly responsible for the characteristic flavor and smell of vanilla is known as vanillin.

Other minor component of vanilla essential oil is heliotropin (piperonal). Piperonal and other substances affect to odour of natural vanilla.

Vanilla essence comes in two forms: the actual extract of the seedpods, and the far cheaper synthetic essence, basically consisting of a solution of synthetic vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde).

Natural vanilla is an extremely complicated mixture of several hundred different compounds, versus synthetic vanillin which is derived from phenol and is of high purity. However, it may be difficult to determine the difference between natural and synthetic vanilla flavoring.


There are three main commercial presentations of natural vanilla:

Whole beans
* Powder
* Extract (alcoholic solution; per FDA requirements, at least 35% vol. of alcohol)

Vanilla flavor in creams, cakes and other foodstuff may be achieved by adding some vanilla essence or by cooking vanilla beans in the liquid preparation. A stronger aroma may be attained if the beans are split in two; in this case, the innards of the beans (the seeds), consisting of flavorful tiny black grains, are mixed into the preparation. Natural vanilla gives a brownish to yellowish color to preparations, depending on concentration.

Good quality vanilla has a strong aromatic flavor, but foodstuffs with small amounts of low quality vanilla or artificial vanilla-like flavorings are far more common, since true vanilla is much more expensive.

One major use of vanilla is in flavoring ice cream: the most common flavor of ice cream is vanilla, and thus most people consider it to be the "default" flavor. By analogy, the term "plain vanilla" or just "vanilla" is used as a synonym for "plain".

In old medicinal literature, vanilla is described as an aphrodisiac and a remedy for fevers, but these purported uses are now obsolete.

Specific types of vanilla

"Bourbon vanilla" is the term used for vanilla coming from Indian Ocean islands such as Madagascar, Comoros, and Réunion, which was the name of the Bourbon island when artificial pollination was discovered. Some people regard the vanilla produced on Réunion Island as the best quality.

Some connoisseurs still regard the Totonac vanilla as the best. It is sometimes marketed in gourmet food stores as "Mexican vanilla", although Mexico also produces low-quality vanilla that sometimes shares this label.

Others regard French Polynesian vanilla as the best, particularly that produced on the island of Tahaa.

The term French vanilla is often used to designate preparations that actually have a strong vanilla aroma, and possibly contain vanilla grains, but originates from the French style of making ice cream custard base with vanilla beans, cream, and egg yolks.

Medicinal use

Long time ago vanilla use in folk medicine. Essential oil of vanilla and vanilin sometimes use in aromatherapy and pharmacology.

Sept 2005 - 2013 - Kosher Recipes - Kosher Cooking - Jewish Cooking - Jewish Recipes - Jewish Foods