Vanilla is a powerfully fragrant and the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. If you ever had the privilege of cutting into a vanilla pod, you know it bursts with a sweet and sensual fragrance.
Vanilla is a delicate and labor-intensive vine, grown only through cuttings and it takes up to three years to flower. Once it flowers, the flowers are hand pollinated, which needs to be done within a few hours of its bloom, or else it dies. Successful pollination results in beautiful pod growth, the green pods stay on the vine for about 9 months before being harvested by hand-picking.
The vanilla pods are cured by placing them in a clean area in the sun and turning it every few hours, for a number of days, until it dries. The pods are then pressed and bathed with non-fragrant oil (almost like a massage) for preservation, and stored in an air-tight container.
Vanilla is one of the most common words found in the ingredients list, whether it’s in baking or a packet. It’s meant to add a sweet floral taste to your cakes or cookies with just a few drops to make a difference. It is also the most bastardized baking ingredient in the world. A normal vanilla pod costs anywhere between 10–25 dollars, while a bottle of vanilla essence in the supermarket would cost around 1. You would wonder how the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) would be so easily and cheaply available. Well, it’s because it’s not the spice, its laboratories taking a luxury ingredient and replacing it with a cheaply lab-generated molecule.
Vanilla essence vs. Vanilla extract
Vanillin is the active component of the vanilla bean that is primarily responsible for its exquisite flavor. According to the Kerala Agricultural University, the compound popular compound vanillin makes up about 85% of the flavor profile and it’s this compound that is synthetically mimicked to what we know as vanilla essence. However, the real vanilla bean has around 130 different fragrance compounds that contribute to its flavor bouquet, which gives its’ rich taste and smell.
Vanilla essence, on the other hand, is 100 percent artificially produced vanillin, generated by scientists to cheaply mass-produce vanilla.
Taste experts will agree there is nothing finer than a good vanilla taste.
How can you use real vanilla in baking?
Buy or in my case, have an expert from the La Iguana chocolate farm give you his home-grown Vanilla, split the pod in two, with a knife remove the fragrant black gold beans, and boil it in milk to use for flan. You bury the pods in sugar and leave for a couple of weeks before using it in baking or your coffee.
Split the beans and place them in alcohol and leave in a month in a dark cupboard, shaking it every few times to make your own vanilla extract. Non-alcohol extract can be made using glycerine instead of alcohol.