Many people would be surprised to learn that vanilla comes from a climbing orchid plant that grows naturally in tropical parts of Mexico. It is the seed pods of this orchid.
Vanilla is so expensive because the plant isn’t well pollinated by insects so they are exclusively hand pollinated nowdays, so it’s pretty labour-intensive.
It’s well worth any cost, though, because of its delicious flavour and usefulness in cooking.
Vanilla pods (from Wikipedia), and a bottle of vanilla extract.
✅ Quick Tips: Understanding your ingredients will make you a better cook, and makes it easier to understand how ingredients will work together.
Although there are a few varieties of vanilla orchids, only one is usually grown for the pods as it has a higher vanillin content. That species is: Vanilla planifolia.
Vanilla can be bought in a number of ways.
- Pods. Whole pods can be bought. To use, split the pods (which allows more of the surface area to contact the food that it is flavouring) and add to the dish. If you are going to remove the pod from the dish, use the whole pod, but if you are not, just scrape the seeds into the dish. They are expensive, but give a rich flavour. High temperatures can degrade the flavour so only use for uncooked or lightly simmered recipes.
- Vanilla essence. Made from synthetic vanillin. Because artificial vanilla only contains one flavour compound, it lacks the complex, nuanced flavours of real vanilla. However, imitation vanilla does have some benefits in the kitchen.
Vanilla beans, paste, and extracts have more depth of flavour than imitation vanilla, but many of those flavour notes degrade at the high temperatures used during baking. For this reason, imitation vanilla is preferred by some bakers for biscuits and cakes. A strong vanilla flavour comes through after baking and usually cannot be distinguished from the real thing.
- Vanilla extract. Made by soaking ground vanilla beans in a solution of alcohol and water. For the product to be labelled “pure”, it must contain 13.35% vanilla bean solids and 35% alcohol. Some vanilla extract products contain sugar or corn syrup to enhance the flavour of low-quality vanilla beans. Look for pure vanilla extract that contains only vanilla bean, alcohol, and water for a better quality product that will become more complex with age. It is thicker, and usually darker, than vanilla essence.
- Vanilla bean paste. Made from the scraped seeds of a vanilla bean suspended in a thick extract. The benefits of vanilla bean paste are that it provides a strong flavour and contains actual seeds but doesn't require the same preparation as the bean
Favourite Vanilla recipes
Some of the most popular recipes that vanilla is used for include:
- Biscuits and cakes
- Milk drinks
If you have a hothouse where you can keep the temperature high all year, especially winter, you may be able to grow your own vanilla orchids.