Orchidaceae (orchid family)
Plant part used to extract essence
The ripe fruit (pod), frequently (but wrongly) called bean. Most of the fragrance resides in the seeds and the oily liquid surrounding the seeds.
It is the ancient Totonaco Indians of Mexico who were the first keepers of the secrets of vanilla. When they were defeated by the Aztecs, they were demanded to relinquish their exotic fruit of the Tlilxochitl vine – the vanilla pods.
When, in turn, the Aztecs were defeated by the conquering Spaniard, Hernando Cortez, he returned to Spain with the precious plunder - vanilla beans - which were combined with cacao to make an unusual and pleasing drink. For eighty years, this special beverage was only enjoyed by the nobility and the very rich. Then, in 1602, Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, suggested that vanilla could be used as a flavoring all by itself, and the versatility of the exotic bean was finally uncovered.
Vanilla as we know and love today
Today, Vanilla beans are grown in four main areas of the world. Each region produces vanilla beans with distinctive characteristics and attributes. Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa, is the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world and the ensuing vanilla is known as Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla. The term Bourbon applies to beans grown on the Bourbon Islands - Madagascar, Comoro, Seychelle and Reunion. There is no connection with the liquor produced in Kentucky in the United States. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is considered to be the highest quality pure vanilla available, described as having a creamy, sweet, smooth, mellow flavor.
Indonesia is the second largest producer of vanilla, with a vanilla that is woody, astringent and phenolic. Madagascar and Indonesia produce 90 percent of the world\'s vanilla bean crop. Mexico, where the vanilla orchid originated, now produces only a small percentage of the harvest. Mexican vanilla is described as creamy, sweet, smooth and spicy. The last of the four major vanilla-producing regions is Tahiti. Tahitian vanilla, grown from a different genus of vanilla orchid, is flowery and fruity, anisic and smooth.
Vanilla, with its wide range of flavor profiles, can be applied to a vast array of products. It is one of the most widely used flavors in the world, particularly in ice cream. It finds its way into sauces in Mexico and cookies in Sweden. Vanilla flavors fruits in Polynesia and perfumes colognes in Paris.
Forms of Vanilla
Vanilla beans can be used in their whole or ground form; however, they are most commonly used for producing extracts, flavors, oleoresins and powders.
Vanilla is the only flavor with a U.S. FDA standard of identity in the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 169). Single-fold extract must contain extractive material from 13.35 oz. of vanilla beans (at 25% moisture) per gallon and at least 35% alcohol by volume. Anything less than 35% must be labeled "vanilla flavor." Optional ingredients include glycerin, corn syrup, sugar and propylene glycol.
Extracts are made by crushing the vanilla beans, extracting with an alcohol/water mixture, and separating the residue from the liquid. Variables such as extraction time and temperature affect the quality of the extract. Imitation vanilla extract is composed of natural and artificial flavorings, including vanillin.
Concentrated vanilla extract (or flavor) is made by removing some of the solvent -- usually by vacuum distillation -- until the desired concentration or "fold" is reached. Each fold must correspond to an original 13.35 oz. of beans in the starting extract before concentration, so a two-fold would have the extractable of 26.7 oz. of beans. Higher folds such as 10x or 20x are made by diluting oleoresins, which do not contain solvent. Distillation destroys some of the aromatic substances of vanilla flavor.
Vanilla-vanillin extract (flavoring or powder) is a vanilla extract to which one ounce of vanillin has been added for every one fold of vanilla extract. It has an alcohol content of not less than 35%. A flavoring contains less than 35% alcohol. Powders contain one vanilla constituent (extractive matter from 13.35 oz. of beans) plus 1 oz. of vanillin in 8 lbs. of dry blend. These products are labeled as "natural and artificial flavor."
Vanilla powder is a mixture of ground vanilla beans and/or vanilla oleoresin combined with carbohydrate carriers and flow agents. A powder contains one vanilla constituent per 8 lbs. of product.
Over 250 components contribute to the flavor profile of vanilla, yet only vanillin is imitated. Natural vanillin is present in vanilla beans at 2% by weight. A cheaper artificial form (USP vanillin) can be synthesized from guaiacol, a coal tar derivative; or produced from lignin, a byproduct of the paper industry.
Ethyl vanillin is a synthetic or "artificial" chemical that tastes the same as vanillin, but is about 2.5 times stronger. It can be used in imitation vanillas. Sourcing and flavor characteristics Many variables factor into the flavor characteristics of vanilla extract, including country of origin, crop year, curing techniques, storage conditions, lots, extraction method, and manufacturer. For many years, flavor profiles of vanillas were described by their origin. Today, profiles within the origins are changing.