Vanilla comes from V. planifolia, a flat-leaved vanilla orchid. Edmond Albius discovered in 1841 the method of pollinating the orchids by hand. Pollination allows the orchids to produce the fruit from which vanilla is obtained. Edmond is from the French island of Réunion. Hand pollination is the reason why vanilla production is labor-extensive. And because of this, vanilla is an expensive spice, the second-most expensive after saffron. The Spanish word vainilla (little pod) birthed the modern name vanilla.
Species: V. planifolia
Binomial name: Vanilla planifolia
- The Totonac, who lived in the modern-day Veracruz, are the ones who first cultivated Vanilla planifolia. The Aztecs owned the vanilla the Totonacs were cultivating after the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, and the same transfer happened when the Spanish conquered the Aztecs.
- The Aztecs drank chocolatl (chocolate) flavored with vanilla. PN Ravindran, in the book The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices, wrote: “The Aztecs are most often cited as the first culture to use and domesticated vanilla to flavour their drink of choice, chocolat.” But they are not alone. Sarah Lohman, in the book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, wrote: “The Mayas used vanilla to flavor their favorite drink of hot chocolate.”
- Thomas Jefferson discovered vanilla ice cream in France in the 1780s while living in Paris.
- The vanilla produced by V. planifolia species is also known as Bourbon vanilla and Madagascar vanilla
Vanilla Buying Guide
- Consider what you should buy first: vanilla bean pod, vanilla extract, or ground vanilla/vanilla powder? Using vanilla bean pods to extract vanilla is a good way to flavor your dish. But it is more convenient to use ground vanilla or vanilla extract, especially if you are cooking big batches and time is of the essence. Ground vanilla or vanilla extract is cheaper also, especially if you are cooking for profit (e.g. restaurant, catering, food for sale, etc.)
- You can buy vanilla (vanilla bean pod, vanilla extract, or ground vanilla/vanilla powder) in the spice aisle of supermarkets and groceries. You can also try specialty stores, like spice shops. You can also order online via e-commerce websites.
- Read the news and check with your local stores where they source the vanilla they sell. Recently, France conducted an investigation regarding the proliferation of fake vanilla in the market, as per the news published by The Eagle, a Texas news agency.
Vanilla Production & Farming in Texas
There is no large-scale commercial cultivation and production of vanilla in Texas and the US. There are places in the US (like Florida) where you can grow vanilla. In Texas, growing a vanilla orchid is possible, but challenging and requires care and attention. Vanilla orchid grows in USDA Hardiness zones 10A to 11A. The hardiness zone spectrum covering Texas ranges from 6 to 9B. To achieve optimal growth of the vanilla orchid, it is best if you have a greenhouse, conservatory, or any form of climate control setup because a vanilla orchid cannot stand very low temperatures.
Vanilla is available in Texas via imported vanilla beans and vanilla products.
Pesticides, Additives, and Chemicals
Vanilla is susceptible to fungal diseases. That is why it is necessary to use Bordeaux mixture, carbendazim, and copper oxychloride.
Vanilla planifolia, the primary source for vanilla flavoring, is native to Mexico and Belize.
This plant is now being cultivated and harvested in Veracruz, a major port city in Mexico. Madagascar is the biggest producer of vanilla. Indonesia, China, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea also grow vanilla.
The species of vanilla orchid that produces vanilla varies depending on where you are in the world. In Madagascar and along the Indian Ocean, they grow V. planifolia (syn. V. fragrans). In the South Pacific, they grow V. tahitensis. And in the West Indies, Central America, and South America, the people grow V. pompona.
Vanilla beans are commonly sold without any kind of packaging. These are sold in bundles, wrapped by a string. But you can also find vanilla beans sold in sealed plastic packaging.
Ground vanilla/vanilla bean powder and vanilla extract are sold in plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, or glass bottles with a lid that serve the purpose of storage as well as a dispenser. The packaging includes cap shrink wrap for product safety and a label to make sure consumers are provided with the information they need, like ingredients, nutritional information, batch number, location of production and manufacturing, etc. You can also find ground vanilla and vanilla extract sold in plastic refill packs, single-use packets, or pouches, as well as in a resealable, moisture-proof aluminum-lined stand-up plastic or paper bag with a valve zipper.
Vanilla ice cream is just the tip of the iceberg of mankind’s love affair with vanilla. It is common to find beverages, pastries and baked goods, desserts, and sweets in vanilla flavor.
Some people are allergic to vanilla. If you experience headaches, sleep problems, and other discomforts after ingesting food with vanilla, consult a doctor if you have vanilla allergies so that you can avoid vanilla in the future.
Besides eating vanilla-flavored food, another way to enjoy vanilla is by using perfume infused with vanilla, or aromatherapy using vanilla-scented oils, candles, and incense.
You can buy vanilla bean pod glass vials or storage jars, which are designed for storing vanilla bean pods. You can also wrap it in wax paper or use plastic wrap. Put these inside an airtight container. Using a wrapper and an airtight container helps to keep the vanilla bean pod from drying out. Store in a cool, dark place, and don’t forget to air it out for 10-15 minutes every two weeks. Proper storage results in vanilla bean pods in good condition for two years. Never refrigerate vanilla bean pods because the pods will dry out and it will develop molds.
Store ground vanilla and vanilla extract in a cool, dry place. The kitchen pantry is ideal. If you have a spice rack or spice cabinet, keep your ground vanilla and vanilla extract there. Put it in a container with a lid and always keep the lid closed.
To use vanilla bean pods for cooking, simply cut the pod from top to bottom and scrape the inner part of the pod. Ground vanilla or vanilla extract is easier to use. Follow directions and instructions regarding quantity, so that the vanilla flavor does not overpower or even ruin the food you are making.
While vanilla itself is delicious already, one good thing about vanilla is that it pairs well with different herbs, spices, fruits, and other ingredients. You’d find vanilla paired with almonds, anise, apple, apricot, banana, blackberries, blueberries, caramel, cardamom, cherries, chestnuts, chocolate, cinnamon, clove, coconut, coffee, cranberries, egg, figs, filberts, ginger, hazelnuts, honey, kiwi, lavender, mango, maple, mint, nutmeg, orange, peaches, pears, peanuts, pecans, pineapple, raspberries, Ricotta cheese, rhubarb, strawberries, tea leaves, toffee, tomato, and walnuts.
Vanilla has calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. The vanillin in vanilla has beneficial properties: antioxidant, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective. Vanilla can help maintain heart health, help the body heal, help with anxiety and acne. promote healthy digestion, help in respiratory conditions, help you lose weight, and help keep your hair healthy.