What is Vanilla?

Vanilla planifolia L.

Orchid Family: Orchidaceae

Also commonly known as Bourbon vanilla (after the former name of Réunion, Île Bourbon) or Madagascar vanilla.

By David Monniaux [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 2.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Vanilla is one of the most popular flavourings in the world used to flavour diary products, confectionary, beverage, and baked goods amongst other things.

It’s is extracted from the cured fruits (also called pods or beans) of the plant species Vanilla planifolia.

The plant is a vine with thick, fleshy green stems and long leathery leaves. The fruits are yellow green pods (beans) up to 12 inches (30cm) long.

The species is indigenous to Central America and grows on the fringes of the Mexican Tropical forests.

Vanilla plants were taken to Reunion in 1822 by the French, then to Mauritius (1827) and Madagascar (around 1840). Madagascar, Comoro Island and Reunion produce about 80% of the world vanilla output.

By B.navez  [GFDL (CC-BY-SA-3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
The pods are harvested before ripening then plunged in hot steam at 70ºC (160ºF)  and then left to ferment for up to 4 weeks by which they are black in colour due to oxidation but still flexible.

During this time the surface of the fruit (pod, bean) is covered with glucose crystals and vanillin, the substance responsible for the fragrance.

Synthetic vanilla can be up to 20 times cheaper than the real thing but will never taste and smell like the real vanilla which has a pure spicy and delicate flavour.

The real vanilla extract is a complex mixture of several hundred different compounds, including vanillin, acetaldehyde, acetic acid, furfural, hexanoic acid, 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, eugenol, methyl cinnamate, and isobutyric acid.

Synthetic essence consists of a solution of synthetic vanillin in ethanol.

Other species

V. tahitensis, grown in the South Pacific; and V. pompona, found in the West Indies, and Central and South America.


Author: Liz

I love everything food: eating, cooking, baking and travelling. I also love photography and nature.

3 thoughts

  1. People talk about something being vanilla like it’s bland or “every day”. I love vanilla, it’s one of the best flavours ever.

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