Vanilla, an aromatic spice, without which there would be no whole range of delicacies. Did you know that it is actually an orchid fruit?

We cannot imagine baking without its aroma and taste.

But vanilla is an indispensable ingredient not only in confectionery.

Its cultivation and processing is reminiscent of alchemy, which is why it is the second most expensive spice in the world.

What is the difference between vanilla extract and essence?

Can you store vanilla pods correctly?

Did you know that the yellow color of vanilla is actually nonsense?

We will tell you that and much more about this exceptional spice in our article.

What is vanilla?

Vanilla is a spice that is actually the fruit of climbing orchids from the Vanilla genus. It originally comes from Mexico, where it was already used by ancient Indian civilizations, not only as a snack, but also as a natural medicine. It reached Europe at the time of overseas discoveries.

This aromatic spice is an important part of the food industry today, where it is used as an important ingredient in many sweet dishes and drinks. We can’t imagine Christmas baking without vanilla, it is added to a whole range of sweets, the most famous of course are vanilla rolls, but also for Christmas cakes or Christmas cookies. But it is also used in the production of perfumes.

Real vanilla

There are over a hundred species of vanilla orchids. Only one of them, the flat-leaved vanilla tree (Vanilla planifolia), but produces fruits that are referred to as true vanilla. Other representatives from which vanilla is obtained are the Tahitian vanilla tree (Vanilla tahitensis) or the large-flowered vanilla tree (Vanilla pompona), but their taste is less pronounced.

In their natural environment, vanilla orchids are pollinated by hummingbirds and bees. They are carefully hand-pollinated by humans on vanilla farms, which is one of the reasons why vanilla is one of the most expensive spices, second only to saffron.

Vanilla tree with vanilla leaves.

What does vanilla taste like?

In general, the taste of vanilla can be described as sweet, rich and woody or smoky. Of course, vanilla pods have the most intense flavor. As a general rule, approximately 3 cm of vanilla bean equals 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. This means that one tablespoon replaces approximately one whole pod.

The taste of vanilla varies depending on the type of plant and the way it is processed. The highest vanillin content and the richest flavor is the vanilla that comes from the flat-leaved vanilla tree. In addition to Bourbon vanilla, Madagascar vanilla, Mexican vanilla and Indonesian vanilla also come from it. Tahitian vanilla contains much less vanillin but has a unique floral scent.

Bourbon vanilla

Vanilla beans from the island of Réunion, known as Bourbon vanilla, are considered the best. In the past, Réunion was a French colony and was called Île Bourbon in honor of Louis XIII. Bourbonsky.

Vanilla and yellow

When we hear the word vanilla, most of us immediately think of the color yellow, in addition to its sweet smell. Yellow is vanilla ice cream, vanilla creams and vanilla puddings. But in reality, this is one big misunderstanding. The reason for their yellow color is not the vanilla content, but the egg yolks. Vanilla pods and seeds inside are dark brown, only the flowers from which the pods are made are yellow. Today, yellow synthetic dyes are added to a number of vanilla products that do not contain egg yolks to make them more attractive.

Vanilla pod

Although it is commonly referred to as a vanilla pod or vanilla bean, from a biological point of view it is a capsule. By the way, the name vanilla itself comes from the Spanish word vaina, meaning pod or pod, and is thus a reference to the shape of the fruit that we use as a spice. Whole vanilla pods are harvested from vanilla orchids when they are still green, turning their characteristic brown color later during processing.

The pods themselves are approximately 15-30 cm long and have tiny seeds on the walls. The vanilla aroma, which comes mainly from vanillin, but not only from it, is bound to a sugar molecule and only releases its aroma when the pod is damaged. Fresh vanilla pods have no scent, the vanilla aroma comes from both the sticky resin surrounding the seeds and the pod wall.

Vanilla pod with flower.

How to choose a vanilla pod?

Whole vanilla pods should be springy, moist, plump, shiny and very fragrant. Avoid those that are dry, brittle or dull, which are signs that they have been improperly stored or are too old.

Storage of vanilla

To keep vanilla beans fresh, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place. Every few weeks, open the container for about a quarter of an hour to “air out” the pods. It is best to use the pods within six months, as they will dry out over time even in the best conditions. However, they can be stored for up to a year. Avoid storing pods in the refrigerator, which can cause mold growth.

Vanilla extract

Most often, vanilla pods are processed into vanilla extract, which is a common ingredient in baked goods and other foods, such as ice creams, toppings, drinks and puddings. Pure vanilla extract is made from real vanilla beans, artificial vanillin flavoring is used in imitation vanilla extract.

Pure vanilla extract should only contain vanilla beans, alcohol and water, with no additives such as sugar or artificial colors or flavors. Generally, if a recipe calls for vanilla extract, it is measured in teaspoons.

How is vanilla extract made?

The vanilla pods are ground into small pieces, revealing the seeds, which contain various volatile essential oils that create the characteristic flavor and aroma of pure vanilla. The main one is vanillin. The extraction process basically involves washing and then soaking the ground vanilla pods in a solution of alcohol and water.

Aromatic compounds are alcohol-soluble, meaning that the aroma from the pods is “extracted” into the alcohol. Some processors use heat to speed up the extraction, which unfortunately has the effect of destroying most of the other aromatics in pure vanilla.

Bowl and bottle with vanilla extract.

Vanilla essence or aroma

It is an imitation vanilla extract that is flavored primarily with synthetic vanillin, a lab-made version of the same chemical compound found naturally in real vanilla. Although it mimics the scent of vanilla, many argue that it does not capture all the complex floral and woody notes that result from the myriad of other substances in true vanilla.

Vanilla paste

In addition to vanilla extract or vanilla essence, you can also find vanilla paste. This is a combination of seeds from vanilla pods, extract, sugar and natural thickeners. As a general rule, you can replace one whole vanilla pod with one tablespoon of paste.

Ground vanilla

Ground vanilla powder is dried vanilla beans that have been ground into a fine, dark brown powder. Its advantage is easy processing and longer durability.

Plate with ground vanilla and vanilla pods.

Vanilla sugar

It is a mixture of sugar and ground vanilla. In addition to vanillin, it also contains other valuable aromatic substances found in vanilla. Unfortunately, nowhere is it specified exactly what percentage of vanilla vanilla sugar should contain, which many manufacturers are somewhat guilty of. It is much better to prepare your own vanilla sugar at home.

How to make homemade vanilla sugar?

Making your own vanilla sugar is very simple. Pour any kind of sugar, cane or white (semolina, crystal or flour) into a glass container and mix it with the seeds that you scrape out of the vanilla bean using a knife.

Mix and then put the used scraped pod into the glass. Seal the jar and wait approximately two weeks before using. It is usually recommended to use two vanilla pods per half kilogram of sugar.

Vanillin sugar

It is a cheaper variant of vanilla sugar, because it does not contain vanilla as such, but only vanillin of synthetic origin. Compared to vanilla sugar, it is lighter and its aroma is less pronounced.

A bowl of vanilla sugar made from vanilla pods.

What does vanilla contain?

In terms of nutritional values and nutrients, only vanilla extract data is available for vanilla. To be considered pure in the United States, vanilla extract must contain at least 35% alcohol and 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. The tables show the values of 100 grams of vanilla extract.

Calorie Water Proteins Fats Carbohydrates Fiber
288 calories 52.6 g 0.06 g 0.06 g 12.6 g 0 g

Vanilla contains minerals such as potassium, copper and manganese.

Potassium Phosphorus Magnesium Manganese Copper Calcium Zinc Iron
148 mg 6 mg 12 mg 0.23 mg 0.072 mg 11 mg 0.11 mg 0.12 mg

In addition, it contains some B vitamins.

Vitamin B1 Vitamin B2 Vitamin B3 Vitamin B6 Vitamin C
0.011 mg 0.095 mg 0.425 mg 0.026 mg 0 mg

What is vanilla used for?

This distinctive aromatic spice can be found in kitchens all over the world. It is mainly added to sweet dishes and desserts, but can also be found in a number of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

  • It is no longer the case that we only have to go to a pastry shop for ice cream. Of course , making homemade ice cream can also include vanilla flavored ice cream.

  • Do you like vanilla pudding? Make your own from vanilla bean, milk, sugar, butter and egg yolks. Subsequently, you can also use it when baking custard cookies or to fill a tartlet.

  • Italian cuisine is known not only for pizza and pasta, but also for delicious desserts. Use vanilla in panna cotta recipes.

  • When baking, it is difficult to do without vanilla, as evidenced by various recipes for kremeše , a delicious dessert made of puff pastry with a creamy filling.

  • You can liven up your breakfast with vanilla, add a small amount of vanilla to milky rice or use it when preparing oatmeal .

  • Last but not least, you can’t do without vanilla even when preparing eggnog , but you will also appreciate it in a milkshake or hot chocolate.
Serve with vanilla rolls covered in sugar.

How to properly process a vanilla pod?

Use a sharp knife to slice the pod lengthwise, leaving the bottom intact. Then scrape out the seeds and add them to the other ingredients of the recipe. The outer pod can be used to add vanilla flavor to milk, cream or sugar. For recipes with whole pods, generally cut off the ends and chop the rest. If the pods become dry, they can be rehydrated if needed. Soak them in milk or warm water for several hours.

You can also use whole pods to make your own vanilla extract, but this is a time-consuming process. Another option is to use them to make vanilla paste. This can be used as a substitute for either vanilla pods or vanilla extract in many recipes.

Extracting the seeds from the vanilla bean using a knife.

Vanilla as medicine

In addition to their versatility and importance in the culinary world, vanilla beans can also benefit our health. In the past, vanilla was widely used as an aphrodisiac, as its scent is said to be closely related to human pheromones. What other positives does vanilla bring us?

  • Antioxidant effects – vanillin is a phenolic plant compound found in vanilla beans. Research shows that vanillin has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Some evidence suggests that vanillin may have anti-cancer effects, although research is so far limited to cell and animal studies.

  • Anti-inflammatory effects – for centuries, vanilla has been used in many forms to reduce inflammation throughout the body. Although inflammation is a necessary part of the normal immune response, chronic inflammation is associated with several health problems, including an increased risk of chronic disease. Vanilla is particularly effective for inflammation of the liver, but it also helps alleviate conditions of arthritis, gout and other inflammatory diseases.

  • Neuroprotective effects – some research suggests that certain compounds in vanilla, including vanillin and vanillic acid, may promote brain health and reduce markers associated with Alzheimer’s disease and reduce memory impairment caused by the neurotoxin. They may also have neuroprotective properties, meaning they can protect the nervous system.

  • Heart health – research into the effect of vanilla on the cardiovascular system, especially its active ingredient vanillin, has shown that it can lower cholesterol levels in the body. This is important for people at high risk of heart attack and stroke, as lower cholesterol levels can prevent atherosclerosis and blood clots.

  • Skin and hair health – vanilla has a positive effect on hair and skin. Its antibacterial nature can make it a powerful ally in the fight against acne, as it can eliminate the underlying infection and speed up the skin’s healing process. It also helps with excessive hair loss and breakage.

  • Relieves respiratory problems – the antibacterial effects of vanilla can also be used to fight colds, coughs or respiratory tract infections.

  • Supports digestion – the aroma of vanilla is known to calm feelings of nausea, while herbal tea with vanilla helps to calm inflammation in the intestines and prevent vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and stomach problems.

  • Helps with weight loss – adding vanilla to foods and drinks can help reduce your intake of added sugar, as the vanilla aroma increases perceived sweetness. The study showed that adding vanilla to milk-based desserts increased the overall popularity of the sugar-reduced variants by more than 80% of participants.

The history of vanilla

According to available information, vanilla was first cultivated by the Totonacs, an Indian ethnic group living on the east coast of Mexico. The Aztecs later named the pods as “black flower”.

Vanilla reached Europe in the 16th century thanks to the Spanish traveler Hernán Cortés. Until the 19th century, Mexico was the main grower of vanilla. After that, the flourishing vanilla industry was taken over by French businessmen who started growing the plant on the islands of Réunion and Mauritius.

Today, vanilla orchids are grown in the equatorial regions of Central America, Africa and the South Pacific. Three quarters of the world’s supply currently comes from Madagascar, other producers include, for example, Mexico, Tahiti, Réunion, Mauritius, Indonesia, Uganda and Tongo.

Growing vanilla

On vanilla farms, each vanilla orchid vine has its own tree or stake to grow on. The plant is allowed to grow to a height of approximately two meters. It takes up to three years for the plant to start flowering. And when it does, it only blooms for one day.

In addition, the vanilla flower must be pollinated by hand, exactly on the day it blooms. The successful pollination of one flower results in one pod, which ripens for 8 to 9 months and is then harvested. The pods must not be fully ripe, as this would split them and lose their commercial value.

Hand pollination of a vanilla tree flower.

Vanilla processing

After harvesting, the vanilla pods are briefly immersed in hot water, which stops the ripening process and activates an enzyme that starts the development of the characteristic vanilla flavor. The pods are then wrapped in cloth and stored in a dark, airtight container in a process called sweating, which is actually a fermentation process. The energy released during fermentation keeps the pods warm and moist.

Drying vanilla pods in the sun.

At the same time, the canvas with the pods is unwrapped every day, placed in the sun, and at the end of the day, the pods are rewrapped and stored in a container. This process is repeated for up to two months, after which the pods are removed from the canvas and air-dried in partial shade for another three to four weeks. From the flowering of the plant to the shipment of dried pods, the whole process takes 12 to 14 months.

Milan & Ondra

We are both fans of good food and enjoy cooking. On this website, we want to inspire you with traditional, but also less common recipes. We will be happy if you try our recipes and let us know how you liked them. Bon appetite! :)