Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid plant, which grows in the form of a bean pod. Although there are over 110 varieties of vanilla orchids, only one, Vanilla planifolia, produces the fruit which gives us 99 percent of commercial vanilla. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron, due to the extensive labor required to grow the vanilla seed pods. The vanilla bean grows quickly on the vine but is not ready for harvest until maturity - approximately nine months. Harvesting vanilla beans is as labor intensive as pollinating the blossoms. Immature dark green pods are not harvested. Pale yellow discoloration which commences at the distal end of the beans is an indication of the maturity of pods. Each bean ripens at its own time, requiring a daily harvest. To ensure the finest flavor from every bean, each individual pod must be picked by hand just as it begins to split on the end. Despite the expense, it is highly valued for its flavor.
The fruit contains tiny, flavorless seeds. In dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, these seeds are recognizable as black specks. Though there are many compounds present in the extracts of vanilla, the compound vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is primarily responsible for the characteristic flavor and smell of vanilla. The processed beans are sorted, graded, bundled and wrapped in paraffin paper and preserved for the development of desired bean qualities, especially flavor and aroma.
How to select
If the beans are around 10 to 15 cm long, then the pods are considered as under second quality and beans less than 10 cm in length are under third quality. Quality and aroma of the vanillin flavor varies by growth location, since some areas produce beans with higher vanillin content.Each of the beans has a considerable amount of seeds inside the pod which are covered by a dark red liquid from which the vanilla essence is extracted. Good quality vanilla bean has a strong aromatic flavor. Look for 100% pure and natural high grade vanilla bean as beans with artificial color and flavoring are also present in the market.
" Vanilla flavoring in food may be achieved by adding vanilla extract or by cooking vanilla pods in the liquid preparation. A stronger aroma may be attained if the pods are split in two, exposing more of a pod's surface area to the liquid. In this case, the pods' seeds are mixed into the preparation
" A major use of vanilla is in flavoring ice cream. The most common flavor of ice cream is vanilla, and thus most people consider it to be the "default" flavor.
" Although vanilla is a prized flavoring agent on its own, it is also used to enhance the flavor of other substances, to which its own flavor is often complementary, such as chocolate, custard, caramel, coffee and others.
How to store
Store vanilla beans in an airtight dark colored container and keep it away from direct sunlight.
" In old medicinal literature, vanilla is described as an aphrodisiac and a remedy for fevers.
" The vanilla beans may increase levels of catecholamines (including epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline), and as such can also be considered mildly addictive.