Do you know that vanilla comes from the pods of a certain species of orchid? This flavoring, though so common today, was once considered as exotic as the beautiful, spidery flowers that produce it. Vanilla is native to Mexico and wasn't discovered by Europeans and brought back to the old country until 1510. It took another century for it to come into its own as a distinctive and delicious flavoring. Previously, it had been used simply to enhance the flavor of chocolate and the scent of perfume.
From the 1600s through the mid-19th century, vanilla grew in popularity in England and throughout Europe, eventually becoming so commonplace that it was derided as unsophisticated and boring. Even today, the term "vanilla" is used to refer to something that is plain or pedestrian. But it's hard to imagine cooking without this versatile seasoning -- whether in liquid extract, powder or whole bean form. (Though technically pods, the pliable, seed-filled vessels are commonly referred to as vanilla beans.) If you haven't explored all the ways to use it, now is a good time to start.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, largely because of the care and labor involved in cultivating and harvesting the pods. The process begins with the pollination of the orchid flower; remarkably, the blooms of the vanilla orchid open to allow this to happen only one day a year. Up until the mid-1800s, pollination was a task left to ants, hummingbirds and the Melipona bee -- a tiny native Mexican insect. Once hand-pollination -- the method still used by today's vanilla producers -- was developed, the process became more reliable.
After the vanilla bean forms and matures on the plant, it is harvested and then subjected to a months-long period of curing and fermentation, which includes drying in the sun and sweating on wool blankets, until about 80 percent of the beans' moisture is lost. The process renders the beans soft, shriveled and almost black in color. It also allows them to develop the intensely aromatic flavor for which they are famous.
Today, there are four types of vanilla grown commercially: Madagascar beans -- which account for the majority of the world's vanilla supply -- are sweet and creamy in flavor; Java beans -- grown in Indonesia -- are woody and smoky by comparison; Mexican beans -- still considered by many to be the best available -- have a clovelike, spicy aroma, and Tahitian beans -- grown from an entirely different species of orchid from the others -- are more fruity in character.
Cooking with vanilla
Though some chefs like to pick and choose among vanilla-bean varieties for various culinary tasks -- using Java beans for baking at high temperatures because of their tendency to mellow under intense heat, for example -- any of the commercial types will do for most cooking jobs.
When buying a product made with vanilla flavoring, check the label to be sure that what you're getting is pure vanilla, not artificial. Some products are made with vanillin, the primary flavor component in vanilla, which can also be extracted from wood-pulp byproducts for artificial-flavoring purposes. It is common to see this ingredient on products labeled "vanilla-flavored." These are likely to lack the complex flavor and distinctive aroma of the real thing. And using artificial vanilla flavoring rather than pure extract in baked goods can lead to disappointing results.
Don't limit your use of vanilla to vanilla-flavored desserts. Used in very small amounts, vanilla has an uncanny ability to enhance the flavors of other foods, both sweet and savory, while softening harsher tastes. Experiment with it in your cooking, starting with just a drop or two, to learn how to take advantage of this quality.
Simple vanilla recipes
A whole vanilla bean or two has more aroma and flavor than extract alone. There are several ways to use them in cooking. One easy technique is to split a bean lengthwise with a sharp knife and then use the edge of the blade to scrape out the seeds inside. Use those seeds, and the pod itself, to infuse flavor into simmering liquids, such as warm milk, custards or spiced beverages, straining the solids away before serving.
Here are a couple of other ideas:
Vanilla sugar: To flavor sugar with delicate vanilla flavor, place a whole bean or two into a sugar-filled jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake the jar once each day to be sure the flavor is absorbed evenly. After a week, the sugar will be ready to use -- delicious in baked goods or as a beverage sweetener.
Vanilla extract: Pure vanilla extract is precious to bakers. To make your own, place one split vanilla bean in a glass jar with 3/4 cup vodka. Seal, and let it sit in a cool, dark place for about six months. When the extract is ready, you can use it straight from the jar or decant into a pretty bottle, add a label and give it as a gift.
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