Often invoked as the epitome of blandness (“he’s so vanilla”), vanilla has a bad rep. That may have something to do with its ubiquity, or with its use in baking, that stereotypically 1950s domestic pursuit. As linguist John McWhorter explains, “Vanilla is your grandmother’s seasoning.” But in its whole-bean form, the spice is a rare treat—far richer and more complex than the synthetic version used in about 90 percent of vanilla-flavored goodies in the U.S. Top chefs have helped real vanilla make a comeback in recent years, even somewhat daringly using the beans in savory dishes, like beef with vanilla-bean-infused red wine.

The bean is the fruit of the vanilla orchid, a tropical plant indigenous to Central and South America. A climbing vine that hangs from trees, it can grow as tall as 60 feet or more in the wild—and it’s the only orchid with any agricultural value.

There are about 100 species of vanilla orchid, but only three are widely used in cooking: Vanilla planifolia (a.k.a. V. fragrans), the most common species, which makes up 99 percent of today’s market for vanilla beans; V. pompona, which is found in the West Indies and has beans that look like little yellow bananas; and V. tahitensis, the relatively rare Tahitian vanilla.

The vanilla “bean” (actually a pod) was first cultivated roughly 1,000 years ago by indigenous peoples in Mexico, then discovered by Spanish explorers and exported all over Europe.

Natural vanillin (the primary flavor-producing compound in a vanilla pod) costs about 100 times more than the synthetic version. Whole vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world, after saffron.

Bourbon? Tahitian? What’s the diff?

The three primary types of vanilla sold in stores—Bourbon (a.k.a Madagascar), Indonesian, and Mexican—are all different varieties of the planifolia species; Tahitian vanilla, which is its own species, is also commercially cultivated and sold. Each tastes different, but some chefs say the flavors are basically interchangeable. The decision to buy one over the other has more to do with cost than taste. “It would have to be a very special dish if you needed to be particular about which bean you purchased,” says Tina Casaceli, director of pastry arts at the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York City.

But if you feel like experimenting, or if you’ve got one of those show-stopping vanilla dishes in mind, here are some guidelines:

Bourbon/Madagascar. This type of vanilla is generally considered the finest, with a flavor that is rich, smooth, and balanced. The serious taster will detect subtle flavors of rum and wood, with prune aromas. Extremely versatile and commonly available, Bourbon vanilla is popular for use in both ice creams and baked goods.

Indonesian. This variety’s flavor is less rich, and its pods contain less vanillin than Bourbon vanilla. Indonesian beans may also have a smoky, harsh quality because producers in the country have traditionally picked the pods green and then smoked them to speed ripening. But the pungency of this variety makes it well suited for use in high-fat ice creams and other rich desserts, which tend to dampen vanilla flavor, says Chris Boynton, a sales rep for extract-producer Nielsen-Massey Vanillas. In addition, it cuts through the sweetness of cocoa and thus provides a flavor-enhancing counterpoint in chocolate candies.

Mexican. These pods contain about half the vanillin of their Bourbon cousins, with more fruity and winy aromas. They also have a distinctive spicy-sweet flavor that makes them a good match for piquant spices like cinnamon and nice complements to savory dishes; CHOW contributor Ya-Roo Yang suggests pairing Mexican vanilla with shrimp or cod. One caveat about this variety: It’s best to stick to the whole beans, or choose your extract very carefully. Mexican-made extracts frequently contain a cheap aroma-boosting additive called coumarin (a.k.a. tonka bean extract), which has been shown to cause liver damage and is banned in the United States. Stick to American-made brands, and beware of Mexican vanillas that seem too cheap to be true—the real-deal extracts are pretty expensive.

Tahitian. This variety has become trendy in recent years, showing up most often in dishes that don’t require baking or intensive heat, like flans and ice creams. The relatively rare Tahitian has unique flowery and perfumed aromas, and is good in fruit dishes, where the floral overtones complement the taste of the fruit. Celeb chef Ming Tsai uses it in this crème brûlée recipe, while pastry chef Florian Bellanger of New York’s Fauchon creates a foam with it. (And you know an ingredient has gone mainstream when even Challenge butter starts dropping its name onto back-of-box recipes.)

Why is it so expensive? Can’t I just grow my own?

Sure, you can grow your own—if you want to wait 10 years for your beans to mature. The vanilla orchid is an extremely slow-growing, finicky plant that requires constant attention. The first step is getting it to produce flowers, which need to be pollinated before they bear fruit—the pods that eventually become commercial vanilla beans. But for a V. planifolia seed to grow into a vine capable of producing flowers, it takes seven or eight years (a mere three or four if you grow your vine from a cutting).

Once the orchid flowers develop—delicate things with a beautiful greenish hue, whose lifespan is only one to two hours—they have to be pollinated, an extremely tricky process. Vanilla is something of an anatomical anomaly: It can’t self-pollinate, and most insects won’t lend a hand, either. The only bug that will pollinate the orchid is a certain type of bee that coevolved with planifolia for the role, explains David Horak, curator of orchids at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. That bee is indigenous to Mexico, so anywhere else in the world the job is left to humans. And it’s quite an undertaking: opening the delicate lip of the orchid, extracting the little wax “packet” of sperm out of one tiny tube in the center of the flower and placing it in another tiny tube that contains the female organs.

Once pollinated, the flowers produce green pods about six months to a year later. The pods must then be picked and heat-cured (which releases complex aromas, concentrates the vanilla flavor, and discourages microbial growth). It takes three to five pounds of fresh pods to produce one pound of cured beans. Finally, the beans must be straightened by hand, then dried for several weeks to further develop the flavor. Bourbon vanilla takes 35 to 50 days to cure; for Mexican vanilla the process takes several months.

Clearly, because of the labor intensiveness of producing vanilla, growing it at home would be out of the question for most of us—it’s not possible in the little herb garden on your windowsill. Still, if you’re a serious gardener with a greenhouse (or if you live in Hawaii or parts of Florida) and you have a lot of time on your hands, you can cultivate your own vanilla. Cuttings are available online from such suppliers as Palm Plantations of Australia and Top Tropicals; also check your local garden-supply store. Patti Lee, vice president of the Manhattan Orchid Society, says a lot of people grow vanilla indoors, even in the Northeast; it won’t flower or produce pods, but it is an interesting-looking plant.

Beans vs. extract

When is it OK to use a vanilla extract, and when must you go whole bean? It depends how central the vanilla flavor is to your dish, says the FCI’s Casaceli. “If you’re making vanilla ice cream, it’s obviously very important that the vanilla be a good flavor,” she says, “but if you’re just using a little bit in a chocolate-chip cookie, you don’t need to worry as much.”

As a general rule, many chefs recommend that you use beans (or commercially available bean paste) in items like flans or frostings, which aren’t cooked long enough for the alcohol in an extract to evaporate; you can use extracts in most other baked goods. Of course, beans can lend a little visual appeal to baked goods: Pastry chef Dena DeVille of Chez Panisse suggests using whole beans “whenever you want the little specks to show and give that extra kick—they can look great in some cakes.” Casaceli says commercial vanilla paste also gives that aesthetic effect without the price tag, and the paste has “better flavor, less liquid, and less alcohol” than extracts. (She recommends Gahara, an Indonesian brand; you can order it online at Rader Foods.)

In industrial food production, extract is king. “Very few people that I deal with on the industrial side use beans, and I can’t think of any industrial ice cream customers that use them,” says Boynton, the Nielsen-Massey sales rep. So where do the tiny black dots in “vanilla bean” ice creams come from? “Exhausted bean specks,” Boynton calls them—ground-up beans that have already had their flavor extracted.

Real extract vs. synthetic vanilla “flavoring”

Pure vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla beans in an alcohol solution. According to FDA regulations, this extract must contain at least 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and at least 35 percent alcohol (the alcohol helps to draw the flavoring out of the pods). Anything that falls outside those parameters must be labeled “imitation vanilla” or “vanilla flavoring”—and 90 percent of the vanilla used in the United States is. “Natural vanilla flavoring” is made from real vanilla pods, but its base is nonalcoholic—usually glycerin or propylene glycol, which can have a funky aftertaste. Imitation or synthetic vanilla (which is sometimes called “vanillin flavoring”) is generally made from either wood-pulp byproducts or a coal-tar derivative.

Which one is better is a touchy subject in the vanilla world. Some folks, naturally, have a hard time believing that a synthetic version of an ingredient could be just as good as the real thing, but several professional taste tests have shown that the two are virtually indistinguishable in most dishes. In 1995, Cook’s Illustrated enlisted a crack team of tasters to compare imitation flavorings and real-deal vanilla extracts, and surprisingly even most pastry chefs and baking experts couldn’t tell the difference. The Cook’s staff was so shocked by the results that they ran another test in 2003, using the two types of vanilla in cakes and custards—and the same thing happened again.

So if you want the taste of vanilla in your morning muffins but don’t have a lot of dough to spend, go ahead and buy the imitation stuff. If you’re leery about eating coal tar, maybe it’s best to stick to the extracts.

Make your own extract

This is one DIY vanilla project that won’t consume a decade of your life. Homemade extract is ridiculously easy to make: Simply split a vanilla bean lengthwise down the middle, place it in a jar with about 3/4 cup of spirits, close the lid, and let it stand for four to six months, shaking the jar every so often. You can even use spent vanilla pods. Vanilla beans (Madagascar and Mexican) are available at Penzeys Spices for $6.29 for three beans.

Most people use either vodka or rum for steeping the beans, but many types of alcohol will work. For example, Nielsen-Massey and other industrial producers use ethyl alcohol, a corn-based liquor, as their base. Casaceli suggests using any clear spirit, while DeVille, the Chez Panisse pastry chef, says that the type of alcohol is a personal choice but color does matter: “A white cake batter will be not be affected by vodka but might be tinted by a dark rum,” she explains.

So how did vanilla get into everything?

The magical flavoring powers of vanilla were first discovered as early as 1000 CE by indigenous tribes in Mexico, which used it to cut the bitterness of cocoa in hot chocolate. The spice made its way to Europe in the 16th century, but it was still used only in chocolate dishes until the early 17th century, when Queen Elizabeth’s apothecary suggested that it could be used as a flavoring on its own in a variety of applications. The queen soon became enamored of vanilla, and her subjects followed her lead, enjoying vast quantities of the spice in products as diverse as puddings, perfumes, and pipe tobacco. Since then, it has remained a staple in pastries and chocolates, and, to a lesser extent, savory fare.

The royal apothecary was onto something. Even if it isn’t the primary flavor, vanilla lends a depth and balance to sweets, underscoring the caramelized-sugar notes in cookies and mellowing out the harsh tones in chocolate. “Vanilla is such a mild flavor that it has the ability to enhance other flavors without overpowering them—almost like salt,” says Casaceli. “A lot of pastries or cookie doughs have too much of a floury or eggy taste, but vanilla softens those notes and ties everything together.”

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