Vanilla is one of the most popular and at the same time most expensive spices in the world. Their pods give a unique aroma to many desserts and sweet dishes, but also to savory dishes. In addition, vanilla has extremely positive effects on the human organism – which is why it was already very popular with the indigenous peoples of Central America.
Vanilla – the fruit of an orchid
Vanilla pods grow from the fragrant white flowers of various types of orchids. The best-known types are real vanilla, also known as spice vanilla ( Vanilla planifolia ), Tahitian vanilla ( Vanilla tahitensis ), and Antillean vanilla, also known as Guadeloupe vanilla ( Vanilla pompona ). A total of around 15 species of orchids provide vanilla beans. Although the word “vanilla pod” is actually not the correct term: it has established itself in everyday usage – botanically, however, vanilla pods are not pods, but capsule fruits.
Cultivation areas: This is where vanilla grows
Vanilla is demanding, so there are only a few growing areas. Real vanilla grows mainly on Madagascar, La Réunion, and other islands in the Indian Ocean. As the name suggests, the Tahitian vanilla grows on the island of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean, and the Antilles vanilla or Guadeloupe vanilla in the Caribbean. Only these three types of vanilla are grown commercially.
Bourbon vanilla is considered particularly fine
Bourbon vanilla got its name from an island. The French overseas island of La Réunion used to be called “Île Bourbon” (Bourbon Island) – and since vanilla grew there, it was called Bourbon vanilla, a particularly fine vanilla that exudes a strong scent and is very popular in Europe. Only vanilla pods from the former Bourbon Island or from the surrounding islands in the Indian Ocean (Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles Mauritius, Mayotte) may bear the Bourbon vanilla designation. It is therefore a designation of origin and not a specific type or variety of vanilla.
Tahitian vanilla tastes a little less intensely like vanilla, but slightly flowery. It is particularly popular in gourmet kitchens, as it is considered to be particularly exclusive due to its low yield. For this reason, Tahitian vanilla is also specifically declared as Tahitian vanilla. You can’t usually find it in normal supermarkets, but rather in spice shops or delicatessens.
The so-called spiced vanilla or real vanilla is characterized by its somewhat more restrained aroma. Real vanilla contributes the largest part to the worldwide vanilla harvest. It is usually not specifically labeled as spiced vanilla or real vanilla in the supermarket, but only written as vanilla – unless it is Bourbon vanilla.
Vanilla with the Aztecs: power drink Xocolatl
Real vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) originally comes from Guatemala and Mexico. Together with tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, cocoa, and many other new foods, they traveled to Europe in the luggage of the Spanish conquerors.
Vanilla was already very popular with the Mayas and Aztecs. The favorite drink of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma is said to have been “Xocolatl” – a kind of drinking chocolate made from vanilla, water, cocoa powder, and spices.
Moctezuma reportedly drank 50 cups of Xocolatl a day. He offered one of them to the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés. Apparently impressed, Cortés later reported that a single mug of the exotic drink would keep a soldier fresh for a day’s march. The Indians used Xocolatl specifically to strengthen their brain power.
In Europe, vanilla only experienced its breakthrough when sugar was added to the drinking chocolate flavored with it. The original Aztec version was only sweetened with a little honey, if at all, but was usually spicy with chilies or pepper.
This is how vanilla is harvested
Since real vanilla flowers are usually pollinated by Central American insects and hummingbirds, vanilla farmers elsewhere had to come up with something. That’s why the vanilla blossoms on La Réunion and Madagascar are pollinated by hand, with a cactus thorn or a bamboo stick, in a laborious process. This has to be done quickly because the vanilla only blooms for a few hours.
After eight months, when the green pods slowly turn yellowish, they are harvested, fermented, and dried. It is only through these processing steps that the pods turn brown and develop their typical vanilla aroma. In addition to vanillin, a good 200 other ingredients also contribute to the aroma.
Ideally, the vanilla beans are harvested when they are ripe, as this is when they have the highest vanillin content. However, for fear of theft and crop failures (e.g. due to storms), farmers are tempted to harvest the pods when they are unripe.
That’s why vanilla is so expensive
Next to saffron, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world. One kilogram currently costs over 600 euros. The reason for this is the complex pollination, harvesting, and processing. Crop failures and the increased crime rate in the growing areas are also affecting vanilla farmers. In order to protect their vanilla beans from thieves, the vanilla farmers have to guard their plantations. It is not uncommon for violent conflicts and even deaths to occur in Madagascar. In some cases, each individual pod is even stamped with the name of the plantation so that it can be traced back in the event of theft.
Organic vanilla is better
Organic vanilla grows and matures without pesticide treatments. This cultivation method protects the health of consumers and producers and of course the environment in the growing countries. Organic vanilla pods also have more to offer in terms of taste than vanilla from conventional cultivation: As a test by the Swiss consumer magazine “Kassensturz” shows, of the eight vanilla pods tested for their aroma, only one organic product was convincing.
In addition, many organic vanilla beans are also Fairtrade certified. This improves the living conditions of the vanilla farmers because the Fairtrade premiums go directly to the smallholder organizations. In addition, attention is paid to a sustainable approach to nature. An example of this is the Mananara region in northeastern Madagascar, where the largest continuous rainforest in Madagascar is still to be found. Thousands of farming families are already growing vanilla there according to organic and fair trade guidelines to protect the environment.
Of course, organic and fair trade vanilla beans are correspondingly more expensive – while two vanilla beans from conventional cultivation cost 6.95 euros, you pay 11.98 euros for two organic vanilla beans. However, the surcharge is worth it if you consider the complex and sustainable care and harvest.
Difference: vanilla powder, vanilla sugar, vanilla extract, and vanilla paste
After harvesting, the vanilla pods are sold whole or processed further:
- For vanilla extract (also called vanilla essence), the pods are soaked in alcohol, which allows the natural flavors of vanilla to pass into the alcohol over time.
- For the vanilla paste, which is available in tubes, the vanilla extract is additionally enriched with vanilla seeds (the inside of the vanilla pod), so that it has the consistency of a thick syrup.
- Vanilla sugar is whole powdered vanilla beans or “extracted” vanilla beans mixed with sugar.
- After a few days, the sugar takes on the aroma of vanilla. When extracting the vanilla pods, only the aroma is removed with the help of a solvent. Vanilla sugar from extracted pods, therefore, tastes less intense. Also, vanilla sugar is not the same as vanilla sugar, as you can read in the section “The Difference Between Vanilla Sugar and Vanillin Sugar”.
- Vanilla powder, on the other hand, consists of whole powdered vanilla pods including vanilla pulp.
Vanillin – the main ingredient in vanilla
Vanillin is the main ingredient in vanilla. It is largely responsible for the taste and health-promoting properties of vanilla. There is between 1.5 and 2.4% vanillin in each vanilla bean.
In order to extract one kilogram of vanillin from vanilla, 40,000 flowers must be pollinated, which roughly corresponds to a harvest of 500 kilograms of vanilla beans. Vanillin can then be isolated from vanilla extract and used as a flavoring – although this is rarely the case these days. Instead, the vanilla flavor in the food and cosmetics industry comes almost exclusively from synthetic vanillin.
Synthetic vanillin for cheap products
Synthetic vanillin was developed so that the popular vanilla flavor could also be mixed into cheap products (sweets, ice cream, cakes, baked goods, yogurts, and much more). However, artificially produced vanillin cannot compete with the full-bodied taste of vanilla. Because while the aroma of vanillin consists of a single substance, the unique taste of vanilla is a harmonious composition of almost 200 natural individual substances.
You can find out how synthetic vanillin is produced and how you can distinguish products with artificially produced vanillin from products with vanilla under the previous link.
Vanilla as a remedy
Vanilla not only smells and tastes particularly aromatic, but it is also healthy. While vanilla is only used today because of its beguiling aroma, in earlier times it was a sought-after medicinal product. For the Maya and Aztecs of Central America, vanilla was considered an indispensable part of the medicine cabinet.
Many of the effects of vanilla were later confirmed by science. This is how vanilla works, among other things:
Vanilla has anti-cancer properties
Vanilla is currently being tested for its effects on disease. Antioxidant substances from the sweet pod are said to protect the DNA of our cells, i.e. mutations (genetic changes), and thus prevent cancer. It is now even believed that vanilla may contribute to apoptosis, the programmed cell death of cancer cells.
These effects are mainly attributed to the vanillin in vanilla. Vanillin has already been shown to be helpful in various types of cancer: In an animal study, the oral dose of 100 mg vanillin per kilogram of body weight daily for 13 weeks led to a 57 percent reduction in the size and number of tumors in colorectal cancer. Similar research results are available for breast, lung, and liver cancer. So far, however, there are no well-founded scientific results in humans.
Vanilla helps with psoriasis
In animal experiments, vanillin also turned out to be helpful for psoriasis (psoriasis): the skin disease manifests itself in scaly and inflamed areas of skin that itch, burn and tear open. Oral doses of between 50 and 100 mg of vanillin per kilogram of body weight daily for a week led to significant relief from skin inflammation and swelling in mice, according to a Taiwanese study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. This is due to the anti-inflammatory effects of vanillin.
Vanilla could help with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
Experiments are already being carried out with the use of vanilla in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s since it is believed that the exotically sweet spice can stop the oxidative processes in the brain. In animal studies, researchers have found that vanillin can cross the blood-brain barrier and have protective effects on the brain through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. Due to the progressive breakdown of nerve cells, symptoms such as tremors, slower movements, stiffness, but also sleep disorders, and disorders of the sense of smell occur. Oral doses of between 5 and 20 mg vanillin per kg body weight daily for 45 days led to an improvement in mobility in rats suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The dose of 20 mg vanillin per kilogram per day showed the best effect in relieving the symptoms.
Vanilla calms the nerves
Vanilla is said to have such a calming effect on stressed nerves that it can even be used to treat insomnia – at least that was the case in the 17th century. Vanilla essential oil is still used today in aromatherapy, including for anxiety, insomnia, and depression. In depressed rats, half-hour aromatherapy with vanillin led to an improvement in depressive symptoms (as measured by the animals’ behavior). This emerges from a Chinese study.
Vanilla for vomiting in pregnancy
Some even recommend vanilla ice cream against nausea and the vomiting that often accompanies it in the first few months of pregnancy. In fact, a small observational study found that vanilla ice cream alleviated the symptoms of what is known as hyperemesis gravidarum. Hyperemesis gravidarum is a particularly severe form of morning sickness in which constant vomiting can lead to dehydration and weight loss. On average, the subjects in the study who ate three servings of vanilla ice cream throughout the day were able to be discharged from the hospital 1.2 days earlier. The study does not reveal whether this effect can really be attributed to the ingredients in vanilla.
Vanilla for the perfect seduction
In the 18th and 19th centuries, vanilla was used for the general strengthening of the organism and particularly often for its invigorating effect on the genitals, for which you did not have to eat the vanilla. Inhaling the scent seemed to be enough. For this reason, vanilla was very popular as a perfume. It should not only attract the male sex but also increase the desire for love.
This was apparently already known to the Indian women of ancient Mexico, which is why they rubbed themselves with the vanilla pod to increase their erotic appeal. Scientists have now discovered that the fragrance vanillin actually has aphrodisiac effects. For example, taking 200 mg of vanillin per kg of body weight per day increased the potency of rats. To this day, vanilla remains one of the most popular components in perfumes, scented candles, and skin care products.
Vanilla in the kitchen
So there are many reasons to include the delicious pod in your diet more often. To get to the aromatic pulp, the vanilla pod is cut open lengthwise and the pulp is scraped out. The scraped pod can then be used, e.g. B. to make your own vanilla sugar. Alternatively, the scraped pod can be cooked in sweet and savory sauces and removed at the end of the cooking time. Because it still contains many aromatic substances that are released during cooking.
How to make vanilla sugar yourself
You can easily make your own vanilla sugar with a scraped vanilla bean. For this, the pod is placed in a screw-top jar with sugar. Instead of conventional sugar, you can use coconut blossom sugar or xylitol. After about two weeks, the sugar will have absorbed the vanilla flavor and can be used for baking or cooking.
The difference between vanilla sugar and vanilla sugar
Vanillin sugar is often offered in the supermarket in addition to vanilla sugar. In contrast to vanilla sugar, vanillin sugar consists of vanillin (alongside sugar) – so it most likely never came into contact with a vanilla bean, since vanillin is usually produced synthetically.
While vanilla sugar contains at least 1 g of ground vanilla for every 16 g of sugar, vanillin sugar consists of at least 0.17 g of vanillin per 16 g of sugar. Accordingly, the vanilla sugar can have an artificial aftertaste, while vanilla sugar is characterized by its round, warm aroma. Vanillin sugar is cheaper than vanilla sugar. While 100 g of vanilla sugar costs between 4 and 5 euros or more, you only pay a little more than 1 euro for 100 g of vanilla sugar. In the organic version, vanilla sugar even costs around 10 euros per 100 g. You can find out why it is still worth buying organic vanilla in the paragraph “Organic vanilla is better”.
How to make vanilla powder yourself
Unlike vanilla sugar, vanilla powder is unsweetened. For vanilla powder, the whole vanilla beans, including the seeds, are dried and then ground. In winter, to dry the pods, place them on the heater for a few days until they are quite hard. In summer, weather permitting, you can dry the pods outside for a few days – but the aromas will dissipate more quickly in direct sunlight. Although vanilla beans are dried briefly after harvesting, their rubbery consistency is not suitable for grinding.
If the pods are hard, grind them in a mortar or in a high-speed blender to a fine powder. If you have leftover pods from cooking or baking, you can use those instead of throwing them away.
How to make vanilla extract yourself
You can also easily make vanilla extract yourself by soaking 5 to 10 vanilla pods, cut lengthwise, in half a liter of alcohol for 4 weeks. Depending on your taste, e.g. B. Vodka or rum. Vodka tastes relatively neutral, while rum has a more intense flavor. The pods should be completely covered by alcohol. Glass bottles with swing tops are best for storage.
You can use vanilla extract e.g. B. Use if you don’t have a vanilla bean or vanilla sugar on hand. It is ideal for baking and cooking because, unlike vanilla pulp, it can be precisely dosed. One to two teaspoons of vanilla extract is usually equivalent to about one vanilla bean and one packet of vanilla sugar (8g).
How long does vanilla last?
Stored airtight (e.g. in a sealable jar), vanilla beans can be kept practically indefinitely. Vanilla sugar and vanilla powder can be stored in a dark, dry place for several months to years. However, they lose their flavor over time.
The vanilla extract should also be stored in a dark place, such as a cupboard or pantry. The alcohol keeps it almost indefinitely. As soon as the pods are no longer covered by the alcohol, you should remove them or pour in new alcohol. The flavor of vanilla extract becomes more intense the longer the pods are soaked.
Vanilla as a houseplant
If you want to keep vanilla as a houseplant and you get the idea of simply sowing the vanilla pulp (the seeds), this will not work. Because the seeds are not germinable. After all, the pod is usually harvested shortly before maturity and then fermented – both of which ensure that the seeds will not germinate.
If you still want a vanilla plant as a houseplant, you are advised to buy a young plant. The vanilla orchid is very demanding: it needs year-round temperatures of between 20 and 28 degrees, a humidity of at least 60 percent, and plenty of light. Such a climate could possibly be achieved in a conservatory with the help of an air humidifier. Vanilla could also feel at home in a bright bathroom.
In addition, since the vanilla orchid is a climbing plant, it needs a trellis and likes to be sprayed with water several times a week. However, it does not tolerate too much water – it is better to wait until the substrate (potting soil, i.e. no orchid substrate!) has dried on the surface. With a bit of luck, they will be rewarded with pretty yellow flowers after three to four years.
In order for the orchid to form vanilla pods, you must pollinate the flowers by hand. This is not a big effort with a single plant, but you have to watch out for the right time because the flowers are only open for a few hours.