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Dave's Garden Cookbook: About Vanilla

The 2001 Dave's Garden Cookbook

About Vanilla

By darius

Category: Miscellaneous Recipes

Richly aromatic, mellow, and sweet, the taste of vanilla is more complicated than the expression "plain vanilla" would have you believe. Like wine, vanilla is the result of a carefully cultivated crop, slowly processed to produce an intoxicating liquid.

Vanilla beans are the fruit of a striking yellow-green orchid. The flowers bloom just once a year for a few hours on vines that grow up to 50 feet high. Workers pollinate the blossoms by hand, pressing the male anther and the female stigma together in a process known as maraige de vanile. Each fertilized blossom then produces one bean. At harvest (eight to nine months after pollination) the beans look like long, green string beans. They are only partially ripened and have no taste or aroma. A yellowish tint at the tip indicates the bean is ready to be picked. The point at which the bean is picked is crucial because most of the chemicals that make up the flavor are produced just before the yellowish tint appears. Beans picked prematurely never develop a full vanilla flavor, no matter how carefully they are processed. Beans left too long on the vine may crack, greatly reducing their value.

Vanilla beans develop their distinctive flavor during a process known as curing. (Because vanilla production is so time-consuming and much of the work is done by hand, vanilla ranks among the most expensive flavorings in the world.) Different vanilla-producing regions have developed their own curing process. The specific curing techniques of each vanilla-producing region lead to differences in what the industry refers to as a "flavor profiles" of the beans. Bourbon vanilla beans, from Madagascar and the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean are generally regarded as having the best aroma. Mexican vanilla is similar to Bourbon, but it is further characterized as dusty and nutlike.
Indonesian beans have an entirely different profile, related to what some feel are inferior curing practices. Indonesian beans are described as woody, herbal, harsh, or nutty. They are almost never as sweet or as mellow as Bourbon beans.

Tahitian vanilla beans are the fruit of a different species of orchid than other vanillas and are immediately distinguished by their strong floral aroma.

Like salt, vanilla has the ability to bring out the flavor of other ingredients without necessarily making its own taste known. Chocolate tastes almost bland without vanilla as a counterpart. Coffee, caramel, coconut and rum are especially well paired with vanilla. When used with fruit, particularly tropical fruits such as mango and papaya, vanilla enhances their natural sweetness while playing down their acidity. More and more, vanilla is finding its way to the other side of the kitchen, where it is used to flavor rabbit, savory and seafood dishes. But to best appreciate vanilla as its own delicious and complex flavor, there is no better medium than mil;k-based desserts like ice cream and custards.

Whole beans are used primarily to make infusions. Their flavor is easily absorbed when steeped in a neutral base such as an egg custard to be used for ice cream or pastry cream. After steeping, the bean can be rinsed, left to dry, and used again as long as the bean retains its scent; when the aroma has faded, it’s time to replace the bean. Wrapped in plastic and refrigerated in a tightly sealed glass jar, vanilla beans keep indefinitely.
-Excerpted from an article by Henry Todd, Jr., Market Analyst for Zink & Trist, the largest buyer and seller of vanilla beans in the world.

Sources for Vanilla
Penzey’s, Ltd. Spice House, PO Box 1448, Waukesha, WI 53187; 414-574-0277. Bourbon, Mexican and Tahitian beans; Bourbon vanilla extract in single and double strength.
Ronald Reginald’s, 101 River Road, New Orleans, LA 70121; 800-366-9766. Pure vanilla extract aged one year, Melipone Mexican vanilla extract, and vanilla-bean marinade (whole beans packed in vanilla extract).
Sweet Celebrations, 7009 Washington Ave. S, Edina, MN 55439; 800-480-2505. Powdered vanilla and "cookie" vanilla (a blend of Bourbon and Tahitian extracts).
Zingerman’s Delicatessen, 422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104; 313-663-3400. Vanilla beans and Bourbon vanilla extract.

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