The vanilla orchid is a member of the plant family known as Orchidaceae and is the only orchid that produces edible fruit. The beans grow on a thick vine that flourishes in warm, moist climates within 25 degrees of the equator. The vanilla plant begins to bear fruit when it is three or four years old. Eight to nine months after pollination, the beans are golden yellow and ready for harvest and curing.
It takes about five to six pounds of green, freshly picked vanilla beans to make one pound of properly cured beans. There are basically two ways to cure the beans: in the sun or over a fire. Using the solar method, beans are spread in the hot sun by day and wrapped in blankets and placed in wooden boxes by night. The sweating process is repeated over and over for six months, until the beans have lost up to 80 percent of their moisture content. This method produces superior results and is used in Madagascar, Mexico, the former Bourbon Islands, Tonga, and Tahiti.
The wood-fire curing method, used in Indonesia and Bali, takes only two or three weeks, but produces a dry, brittle bean with a smoky flavor, generally considered inferior.
When you buy a vanilla bean at your market, the black, oily, smooth pod you’re buying is a cured bean. When you purchase a bottle of pure vanilla extract, you’re buying beans whose flavor components have been dissolved in a solution of water and alcohol.
By law, pure vanilla extract must contain at least 35 percent alcohol by volume. Anything less is labeled a flavor. Pure vanilla extracts come in a variety of folds, or strengths. The Food and Drug Administration has established that a fold of vanilla is the extractive matter of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans to a gallon of liquid. Strong, pure extracts, such as four-fold, are primarily used in mass food production.
What about imitation vanilla?
Not only is pure vanilla expensive, but demand also far exceeds the world’s supply of the real thing. Stepping in to fill the void is the chemist, who has come up with a variety of imitations made from synthetic vanillin, the organic component that gives vanilla its distinctive flavor and fragrance. Most synthetic vanillin is a byproduct of the paper industry, made by cooking and treating wood-pulp effluent. But since vanillin is only one of more than 150 flavor and fragrance compounds found in pure vanilla, the chemist has yet to match the subtlety with which Mother Nature has endowed the real thing.
How to tell a good bean when you see one.
Quality is key. To truly experience all the flavor and fragrance vanilla has to offer, you have to seek out quality beans and extracts. Generally speaking, look for beans that are supple and aromatic. Tahitian beans are moister and relatively short and plump, with thin skins and a floral aroma. Bourbon beans (so called because they originate in Madagascar, Reunion, and the Comoros, formerly known as the Bourbon Islands) are slightly dryer, contain more natural vanillin, and have thick skins (the flavor has nothing to do with bourbon whiskey). Stay away from dry, brittle, or smoky-smelling beans.
Depending upon quality and variety, single vanilla beans retail from about $3.50 to $10 a piece. Vanilla beans should be kept at room temperature in an airtight container. Don’t refrigerate them or they may develop mold. Vanilla beans last up to two years.
Especially if you cook with it often, it is more economical to buy pure vanilla extract by the pint, or even the quart, and share it with a friend. The best pure extracts contain no caramel and artificial color and little or no sugar. Store extract at room temperature, tightly closed. It will keep up to five years.