Understanding Vanilla

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The vanilla orchid is native to Mexico. The Totonacs seem to have been the first people to cultivate this fragrant plant. After conquering the Totonacs more than 2.000 years ago, the Aztecs started to use cured vanilla to add a deeper flavor to their cacao beverages. It was only around the 16th century that it was discovered by Spanish conquistadors and brought back to Europe.

Introduction : Vanilla native to Mexico

Discovery of manual pollination technique

Many attempts were made to cultivate the vanilla orchid outside of Mexico but failed due to the fact that only the Melipona Bees, also native to Mexico, are capable of pollinating this orchid. This all changed in 1841 when a young slave on Réunion island named Edmond Albius discovered how to pollinate the vanilla flower by hand using a small splinter of wood. This same method discovered by Edmond in the 19th century is still being used to this day around the world where vanilla orchids are being cultivated. This is a very labor intensive practice, seeing as the vanilla flower only blooms for a few hours per season and has to be pollinated in that window of blooming, otherwise no vanilla pod will develop.

Tlilxochitl - a complex name for a complex spice

The name originally given to the vanilla bean by the Aztecs is tlilxochitl. Quite a mouthful. And just as complex as the original name given to vanilla is, so is the flavor experience that it offers. Natural vanilla is one of the most intricate spices. It offers at least 250 different flavor and aroma compounds, only one of which is vanillin. This is why when a finished product is only flavored with pure vanillin, it results in a flat flavor profile. Whereas when a finished product is flavored with natural vanilla, the result is a rich, well-rounded organoleptic profile with many layers of different flavor experiences.

Three main varieties of vanilla: Planifolia, Tahitensis and Pompona

Nowadays, there are three main varieties of vanilla on the market, namely Planifolia, Tahitensis and Pompona. Generally, Planifolia vanilla beans offer a deep, rich, creamy flavor profile. Tahitensis vanilla on the other hand offers a sweet, floral, fruity and delicate flavor profile often described as being reminiscent of raisins, cherries with anise-like characteristics. Vanilla Pompona is a lesser known type of vanilla and offers smoky, sweet, sometimes spicy notes.

Vanilla Origins

Origin plays a significant role in determining the unique flavor profile of cured vanilla

It is however important to note that it is not only the variety of vanilla that affects its flavor profile. The origin of the specific vanilla is vital in influencing its characteristics. The terroir in which the orchid grows, the climate and the traditional curing methods in each country are critical contributing factors in the development of each cured vanilla bean’s unique composition and organoleptic profile.


In Madagascar, the most common species of vanilla is Planifolia. The northeastern corner of this island is also where the majority of the world’s vanilla is produced. This humid region with the Indian Ocean at its coast, is known as the Sava. The combination of loamy, fertile soils and frequent rains makes the Sava an ideal location for the vanilla orchid to grow.

The vanilla from Madagascar is often referred to as Bourbon vanilla. This name originates from the old name given to a neighbouring island of Madagascar, namely Réunion island which was previously known as Île Bourbon. Today, vanilla originating from any of the islands in this specific region including the islands of Réunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros and the Seychelles, may be classified as Bourbon vanilla. Although by far the vast majority of Bourbon vanilla on the market comes from Madagascar.


Indonesia has a tropical climate. With high humidity, low winds and monsoonal rain falls, the archipelago and its topography allows for many kinds of plantations, including vanilla cultivation. Most of the vanilla found in Indonesia is from the variety called Planifolia and exhibit the typical Planifolia traits of being rich and creamy, but due to the specific climate, soil composition and the curing practices used in Indonesia, they also have a unique smokiness together with earthy undertones.

Indonesia does not only offer Planifolia vanilla, one can also find vanilla from the Tahitensis variety. This variety from Indonesia has a shorter shape, is more plump than vanilla Planifolia. It offers a delicate floral and fruity aroma with subtle notes of licorice.


The vanilla production in Uganda is the third largest in Africa, making Uganda one of the top vanilla exporting countries of the continent. Ugandan vanilla is exported mainly to the United States and Europe, in various forms – beans, seeds and powder. Unlike other vanilla growing regions, Uganda’s climate and weather patterns allows the farmer to harvest vanilla twice per year, once in December and once during June-July.

Papua New Guinea

Tahitensis vanilla beans from Papua New Guinea can easily be distinguished due to their extra dark black appearance. They are rich in oils with a very unique floral and spicy aroma – it is no wonder Tahitensis vanilla from Papua New Guinea is growing in popularity.

Cured vanilla - different forms of the raw material

Depending on the use and desired application, cured vanilla can be bought in many different forms.

Vanilla beans: Gourmet and Extraction

Vanilla beans, also known as vanilla pods, can directly be used for gourmet cooking and baking or for creating vanilla extract. Therefore, there are two main categories of vanilla beans classified by their moisture content and their appearance. One is more adapted to cooking recipes (Gourmet) whereas the other is mostly used for making vanilla extract (Extraction).

The beans with a higher moisture content are more suitable for gourmet cooking and home chefs, seeing as they can be cut open more easily to get to the vanilla seeds where most of the flavor resides. Gourmet vanilla beans can be identified as the more visually attractive of the two. They are plump, pliable and full of fresh vanilla caviar (the seeds of the vanilla plant). Due to a moisture level higher than the Extraction grade (around 30% or more), they are visibly oily and rich in vanillin concentration (vanillin being the compound in vanilla that is responsible for the unique taste and smell of the orchid).

On the other hand, Extraction vanilla beans are drier and less pliable. Within the Extraction category, there are various types of vanilla beans varying in moisture content, some are whole and some are split open, lastly there are cuts which are very dry and brittle. The choice of Extraction grade depends on the desired concentration of vanillin in the final result of the extract. Lower level of moisture helps to create a more concentrated vanilla flavor.

Vanilla Seeds: Caviar

When one wishes to purchase pure vanilla seeds, one should look for vanilla caviar.

Put simply, vanilla caviar is the name given to the black seeds found inside the vanilla pods. This is the part of the bean that contains the highest concentration of vanillin and therefore provides a powerful aroma.

Vanilla caviar should not be confused with vanilla powder. Vanilla powder consists of ground vanilla beans in its entirety – the pods and the caviar all together. Vanilla powder is not as high in vanillin when compared to the same amount of vanilla caviar due to the addition of the husks, although they can be used in similar applications.

Vanilla caviar should also not be confused with vanilla paste. Vanilla paste is mostly a mixture of ground vanilla beans or vanilla seeds with vanilla extract. Oftentimes, it is also sweetened.

The use of the above mentioned forms of vanilla all depends on the application. In general vanilla powder works well with dry ingredients, while vanilla paste is more suited to be mixed into liquids. When vanilla paste is sweetened, it is only suitable for sweet applications – desserts, chocolates and pastries. Vanilla caviar and vanilla powder is unsweetened and can be used for both sweet or savoury applications.

Spent or exhausted vanilla: reduce, reuse, recycle.

Instead of throwing the remains of the vanilla bean away after extraction has taken place, there are innovative ways through which the leftover seeds and husks can still be put to good use. The spent vanilla seeds and ground up husks can be used to add a visual effect to a product in which vanilla extract has been used to give it flavor. It can also be used in combination with vanilla extract when creating vanilla paste. Another application can be to dilute extraction grade vanilla beans before they are used for extraction in order to create the exact desired balance in the vanillin concentration of the finished product. Lastly, the exhausted product can also be used in tea blends. Spent product has a very faint aroma which works well in teas where a subtle flavor is desired.
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