Vanilla bean

Other Names: Baunilha (Portuguese); lavani (Swahili); paneli (Indonesian); vainilla (Spanish); vaniglia (Italian); vanille (French, German); wahn nei la (Chinese); wanilya (Arabic).

General Description: Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is the only orchid that produces edible fruit, in the form of long thin seed pods. Native to Central America, vanilla has a long history of use in that region, especially for flavoring Mayan and Aztec spiced drinking chocolate. Vanilla is difficult to grow, requiring hand pollination. The tasteless green pods must be cured and fermented, either in the air or over fire, to develop their vanillin content. This complex and expensive process lasts about six months. The result is shriveled, though pliable, brownish black, oily, smooth pods with delectable fragrance and flavor. Most of the fragrance resides in the miniscule black seeds and the oily liquid surrounding them. Vanilla flavors Western sweet baked goods, custards, puddings, ice cream, drinks, and liqueurs, as well as savory creations of inventive chefs, such as lobster with vanilla. Look for tiny black seeds of real vanilla speckling desserts like crème brûlée, panna cotta, and ice cream.

Bourbon vanilla pods, from the islands of Réunion and Madagascar, have full-bodied, creamy, rich, deep, dark flavor. Mexican vanilla beans are lower in cost, with sweet, spicy, woody flavor and pronounced vanilla notes, but for people accustomed to artificial vanilla, they may seem weak. The deep, full-bodied flavor of Indonesian vanilla is appreciated in America, though quality may be mixed. Highly fragrant Tahitian vanilla, from a closely related species (V. tahitensis_) is rarer and has strong fruit and floral notes. Vanillons (_V. pompona), produced mainly on the island of Guadeloupe, is quite floral and low in vanillin; it’s mainly used in perfumes.

Purchase and Avoid: Choose dark, supple, oily vanilla pods, avoiding those that are brittle or dried-out. Use only all-natural vanilla extract, choosing one with aromatic, concentrated flavor from a high-quality manufacturer. Vanilla may also be purchased as ground vanilla bean powder or as vanilla sugar. Vanilla paste is a relatively new product in which vanilla seeds are suspended in a vanilla-flavored gel. Many vanilla-flavored products are made from cheap synthetic vanillin, extracted from wood. Coumarin, extracted from the potentially toxic tonka bean and now outlawed in the United States, is sometimes added to Caribbean and Mexican vanilla extract.

Storage: Store vanilla beans in an airtight container in a cool, dark place up to 18 months. Store vanilla extract in the pantry up to 1 year.

Preparation: To make vanilla extract: Split several vanilla beans lengthwise, place in a clean glass jar, and cover completely with vodka or brandy, shaking well. Seal the jar and let stand in a cool, dark place for 4 to 6 months, shaking occasionally.

Serving Suggestions: Boil vanilla beans in water until soft and tender. Simmer in sugar syrup until shiny, then bake at 300 ̊F for 15 minutes, or until crisp. Serve as a garnish for desserts.

Food Affinities: Almond, banana, blueberry, brandy, chestnut, chocolate, citrus, coffee, cream, hazelnut, honey, lobster, mango, pecan, ricotta cheese, strawberry, walnut.

from Quirk Books: