What is Vanilla and How Do You Use It?

FR: Vanille

GER: Vanille

IT: Vaniglia

SP: Vainilla

BOT: Vanilla planifolia

FAM: Orchidaceae

ILL: Plate 4, No. 5

Vanilla is the pod of a climbing orchid, originating in the humid forests of tropical America. It was brought to Europe by the Spanish, who had found it already used by the Aztecs as a flavouring for chocolate. In modern plantations, the vanilla orchid is trained up posts or trees. The long, yellow pods are picked unripe, and fresh pods have no vanilla flavour. This develops only as a result of internal chemical activity (by enzymes) during a curing process. Curing is done in various ways but always involves ‘sweating’ in airtight boxes.

What is Vanilla and How Do You Use It? Photo Gallery

The best cured vanilla pods are dark brown, tough, somewhat flexible and covered with a frosting of crystals of aromatic vanillin. Since real vanilla is expensive, and a frosting is rather easy to fake, the best guide to the amateur buyer is a good shop and a fair price. One should be suspicious of cheap vanilla pods.

As a flavouring, vanilla pods are definitely superior to essence. Pods may be used many times over, even after warming or steeping in creams or custard, provided they are afterwards washed and re-dried. Since, however, vanilla flavour is almost always used in sweet dishes, the easiest technique is to keep several pods in a jar of sugar, which will then absorb the aroma. If the jar is continually refilled with sugar, the pods will perfume it for a long time.

Vanilla is grown in Mexico, Guiana, Puerto Rico, Guadalupe and Dominica, Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Comoro Islands, Reunion, Tahiti and other places with suitable climate. Pompona or West Indian vanilla comes from another species, Vanilla pompona. Do not confuse with the garden heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens, Heliotropiumperuviana), which has vanilla-scented flowers, known to many people as vanilla flowers and used in perfumery.

The best vanilla essence is made by extracting crushed vanilla pods with alcohol. Synthetic vanillin can be made from a substance present in clove oil (eugenol). Like most synthetic substances, it lacks the depth of the natural flavouring. Cheap vanilla essence may also, in countries where it is allowed, contain coumarin.

Vanilla flavouring is used in countless commercial products, in liqueurs and for poodle-faking cheap brandy and whisky.

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