Ah, vanilla. That singular flavor that makes all our sweet treats so memorable. If you’ve ever made the mistake of leaving vanilla out of that special cake or batch of chocolate chip cookies, you know what can happen—the taste falls flat. Why? Because vanilla is to desserts what salt is to main courses. Therefore, we’ve decided to take a moment and give vanilla the attention it deserves. So read on to discover everything you didn’t know about the humble vanilla bean pod and the aromatic spice we couldn’t live without.
The Vanilla Bean Pod: Where It All Begins
The rich vanilla flavor we all know and love comes from an orchid that belongs to the genus Vanilla, which is composed of more than 100 species and is native to the Caribbean as well as South and Central America.
Each vanilla orchid produces several dozen bean pods, which are harvested when their tips begin to turn yellow. The whole beans are then put in hot water for several minutes to trigger the release of the enzyme that begins the production of vanillin—the primary component responsible for vanilla’s characteristic flavor.
When the vanilla beans are removed from their water bath, they’re immediately wrapped in wool blankets or towels, placed in an airtight container, and left for up to 2 weeks to undergo a process called “sweating,” which helps further concentrate the vanilla flavor.
When the bean pods are judged to have developed the proper moisture content, they’re left exposed to the sun during the day and then rolled back up at night. This process can continue for several months until the correct aroma and moisture content are achieved, at which point the drying process begins.
As the whole vanilla bean pods are dried, they’re constantly moved from sun to shade until they achieve a moisture content of 25% to 30%—a process that can take several weeks. But when moisture levels are judged to be just right, the pods are placed in boxes lined with wax paper, where they’re stored for at least a month to further concentrate the flavor.
With such an extensive production process—not to mention the fact that the plants are most often hand pollinated due to a lack of natural pollinators—it’s no wonder that vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.
Types of Vanilla
After the arrival of the Spanish, the vanilla orchid was taken from its homeland to Europe and thus spread across the world. As a result, we now have many different varieties of vanilla, each with its own unique flavor. However, some of the more common are:
- Madagascar vanilla: This is the most popular type of vanilla, owing to its high vanillin content and rich, creamy flavor. Madagascar vanilla—and all vanilla grown on the islands of the Indian Ocean—is also known as bourbon vanilla, after the island Reunion, which was once called Bourbon Island.
- Mexican vanilla: This type of vanilla also has a high vanillin content, but its flavor is stronger and smokier than that of bourbon vanilla.
- Tahitian vanilla: This type of vanilla contains less vanillin than either Madagascar or Mexican vanilla and has a sweeter flavor that’s more reminiscent of cherries or raisins.
- Ugandan vanilla: Harder to come by—but definitely worth it if you can find it—this type of vanilla also contains high levels of vanillin and has a flavor that’s similar to bourbon vanilla but even richer.
Pure vs. Imitation Vanilla Extract
If you’re used to purchasing vanilla from your local grocery store, you’re likely to run across both pure vanilla extract and imitation.
So what exactly is the difference?
Pure vanilla extract is created by steeping vanilla bean pods in a combination of alcohol and water. As the whole beans are allowed to soak in the liquid, the vanilla pods and their thousands of tiny vanilla seeds release their rich vanilla flower.
However, artificial vanilla extract is made with vanillin that’s derived from things like wood pulp, beaver gland secretions, and cow dung—appetizing sources that may be listed on the label as simply “natural flavoring.”
Aside from the vast—and somewhat nauseating—difference in source ingredients, the dark brown color of pure vanilla extract also contains more than 200 different compounds, while artificial extract contains fewer than 10. So if you’re looking for complex flavor with a lot of depth—and no beaver butt juice—always choose pure vanilla extract.
And if you want the richest, most flavorful vanilla extract ever, simply make your own.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
To create your own homemade vanilla extract, infuse five or six fresh vanilla bean pods (smooth and plump) in a cup of vodka, bourbon, rum, or brandy in a bottle with a secure seal. To extract the most flavor, make sure the pods have been sliced down the middle and completely submerged in the alcohol. Then store the bottle in a cabinet at room temperature, shake it up once a week or so, and let the mixture steep.
The longer the vanilla bean pods are allowed to steep, the darker the caramel color and the richer the vanilla. For best results, wait a minimum of 6 months before using your extract.
Once you’ve begun using your extract, you can keep the vanilla beans from becoming slimy by topping off the alcohol as you use the liquid, or you can just remove the beans. Either way, your homemade extract will remain ready to add to your favorite recipes as long as it smells good, which should be several years—even longer if the vanilla beans have been removed.
The Surprising Health Benefits of the Vanilla Bean
While most people love the smell and taste of vanilla, many aren’t aware that vanilla beans actually offer some great health benefits too. In fact, both vanilla extract and vanillin have been found in numerous studies to possess significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may be useful in decreasing the risk of disease.
A study published in the journal Molecules found that vanilla essential oil inhibited the adherence of Staphylococcus aureus on catheters and the development of biofilm—a thick layer of bacteria surrounded by a protective coating of lipids, proteins, polysaccharides, and nucleic acids.
A study published in the European Journal of Pharmacology found that vanillin protected the livers of rats from acute injury—a finding researchers attributed to vanillin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
A study in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology found that vanillin was as effective as fluoxetine in reducing depressive symptoms in mice subjected to stressful situations.
A study in the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology found that rats fed vanillin along with a high-fat diet experienced a significant decrease in both triglycerides and total cholesterol—known risk factors in the development of heart disease.
A study in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology found that vanillin supplementation in obese mice led to decreased levels of inflammatory markers, increased production of short-chain fatty acids, and improved levels of beneficial gut bacteria.
In an interesting study published in the Japan Journal of Nursing Science, researchers discovered that placing gauze impregnated with vanilla extract in the incubators of preterm infants resulted in significantly fewer episodes of apnea.
Cooking with Vanilla
While fresh vanilla beans are certainly the pinnacle of vanilla flavor, they’re also incredibly expensive and don’t go that far. In fact, one vanilla bean pod is equivalent to only 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract. So, if you’re investing in vanilla pods, we suggest getting the most out of your purchase by using the whole beans to create your own homemade vanilla extract.
However, if you’re making something that cries out for super intense vanilla flavor and the added visual thrill of tiny seeds dotting your handiwork—think vanilla ice cream or frosting—then choosing whole beans for your recipe is totally worth it.
And to maintain the best flavor, you should be sure to store vanilla beans at room temperature and place them in an airtight container in a dark place, like a cabinet.
But whether you choose pure vanilla extract or whole vanilla bean pods, you can bet all your favorite desserts, from cakes and cupcakes to crème brûlée, custard, and even our matcha chia pudding bowl, will be extra delicious—and all that fabulous vanilla might even make you healthier too!