Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Vanilla Bean-Why So Expensive?

This question aroused my interest, after obtaining the ingredients to make "Mayan Hot Chocolate", the same hot chocolate that was made in the movie, "Chocolat." Just reading the ingredients was enough to entice any hot chocolate lover to make it.

One of the ingredients was the vanilla bean pod. As I eagerly searched the supermarket for the exotic, indispensable vanilla bean pod, you can imagine my delight to finally find it on the shelf in the spice aisle. My eyes glistened with joy as I reached eagerly for it. "What? There are only two pods in this jar?", I said. "Oh well, the recipe said I just need one anyway." Okay, now how much is it?" I could not believe my eyes, "this must be a mistake, it says $12.99 for just two pods?" It was no mistake, and there was no turning back, I had to make it if I was going to have the authentic "Mayan Hot Chocolate" that was on the movie Chocolat!

As you know, from my previous blog, the cost and effort to make it was well worth it. It was outstanding. I decided from that day on, I needed to find out why the vanilla bean pod is so expensive, and to blog about it.

So here's what I found out:

These are some of the most often asked questions.

Q1: What are vanilla beans and where do they come from?

Vanilla beans are actually the fruits of the tropical orchid variety Vanilla Planifolia. Of the many thousands of varieties of orchids this is the only one that bears edible fruit. The pods look like green beans when ripe; after harvesting they need to be cured to develop that rich flavor. Vanilla beans are grown in the tropical climates only. Some of the more popular countries are Madagascar and the surrounding islands, Uganda, Indonesia, Tahiti, Mexico, India and Hawaii. Malaysia has just recently join in the vanilla bandwagon due to its lucrative commercial lure.

Q2: Why is natural vanilla expensive?


Vanilla is the world's most labor-intensive agricultural crop, which is why it's so expensive. It is the second most expensive spice next to saffron. It takes up to three years after the vines are planted before the first flowers appear. Each flower opens only one day a year for a few hours.

The vanilla flower is laboriously hand-pollinated. The fruits, which resemble big green beans, must remain on the vine for nine months to completely develop their signature aroma before they are hand-harvested and the lengthy process of curing, sweating and drying begins. The beans are large, tasteless green pods, and must be cured to develop flavor and aroma. The vanilla is completely cured when the proper moisture content is reached, and the beans have darkened to a sweet, rich aroma. The entire curing process sometimes may stretch up to nine months.

Q3: What is the difference between natural vanilla and artificial vanilla?

Substances called “vanilla flavor” in the market don’t contain vanilla at all, being synthesized from eugenol (clove oil), waste paper pulp, coal tar or ‘coumarin’, found in the tonka bean, whose use is forbidden in several countries. Real vanillin from pure vanilla has several hundred complex flavor components, artificial vanillin just simulates one or a few of these. A good synthetic duplicate of real vanilla simply does not exist.

Q4: What is the difference between Planifolia (Bourbon) and Tahitensis (Tahitian) vanilla species?‘

Bourbon’ and ‘Tahitian’ are the generic or common names of the vanilla orchid species with the scientific names Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis. These species are grown in many countries around the world. The aroma and flavors are completely different and they may also be used for different purposes. Bourbon vanilla is best suited for use where the classic vanilla flavor and aroma is required like desserts, ice-creams, smoothies, tea and sugar infusion. Tahitian Vanilla is generally much favored by gourmet and pastry chef for its short burst of floral flavor. However, in the end it is all up to you to decide what suits you best. You can even mix these two varieties for a richer and more distinctive taste and aroma.

Q5: Where does the vanilla bean originate from?

The vanilla orchid is a native to Mexico, but Madagascar is now the largest producer in the world.

The plant grows as a vine attaching itself to existing trees, and if left alone will climb to the highest point of the tree with hardly any flowers.

One flower produces one fruit and the flavored compounds of vanilla are found there. The vanilla flower lasts only one day, sometimes less, so the vines have to be inspected daily, which is very labor intensive.

The vine can be grown on wood such as trees in a forest, in a plantation on trees or poles, or in a shade house which increases the productivity.

Vanilla Planifolia flowers are hermaphrodites, which means that they carry both male and female organs. To avoid self-pollination, there is a membrane which separates these organs.

There is only one species of bee which can naturally pollinate the flower, and that’s the Melipone bee only found in Mexico. This one species of bee had a 300 year monopoly pollinating the Vanilla Planifolia. They are also pollinated by the hummingbird.

In 1836, a botanist named Charles Francois Antoine Morren, was sitting on his patio in Veracruz, Mexico, drinking coffee, and he noticed black bees flying around his vanilla flowers sitting on his table. He watched them working their way under the flap inside the flower and transferring their pollen. He noticed that within a few hours the flowers closed up and a few days later, seed pods began to form. He immediately began experimenting with different ways to use hand pollination, but it wasn’t until 1841 that a slave named Edmond Albius who resided on Reunion, developed a simple hand pollination method which is still practiced today.

Today, Vanilla grows within the 20-degree latitude, either side of the Equator and is native to the Americas. Vanilla planifolia grows on the Atlantic Gulf side of Mexico from Tampico around to the north eastern tip of South America, and from Colima, Mexico to Ecuador on the Pacific side. It also grows throughout the Caribbean.

Madagascar and Indonesia grow the majority of the world's crop. Other countries growing vanilla include Guatemala, Costa Rica, Uganda, China, India, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, and the Philippines.

Q6: How are vanilla beans processed?

The vanilla pods are hand-harvested when they are still green and then the fermentation process begins. The beans are plunged in hot water to stop the photo-synthesis process and then the 'drying' and 'sweating' process starts until they have shrunk to 20% of their original size. The beans are dried in the sun during the day and then wrapped in the blankets at night so they can sweat. This process can last anywhere from 2 to 6 months until the beans become a very dark brown color and develop a white crystalline substance (or frost) on the outside of the bean, called vanillin. The vanillin is what gives the beans their wonderful flavor and aroma and these beans are prized. At this point the beans are aged to bring out their full flavor, and this can take from 2 months to two years. Upon the completion of this process, the beans are sorted for size and quality. Then they will rest for a month or two to finish developing their full flavour and fragrance. Once dried and cured the vanilla pods need to be kept airtight to retain their wonderful flavor.

Q7: How are Vanilla Beans categorized?

Both Bourbon and Tahitian Vanilla Beans are categorized in 3 Grades: A, B & C. Grade A beans are of good-color (chocolate brown to black) and void of dents, tears and marks. Grade B & C beans are a lower quality, but still suitable for many needs. Size does matter when it comes to buying vanilla beans. The conventional wisdom is the longer the bean the superior its quality. Although longer beans contain a larger percentage of caviar (the seeds-pulp), shorter beans can be of a similar quality and flavor. It is this larger percentage of caviar in a bean that justifies the higher price for longer beans.

Q8: What to look for when buying vanilla beans?

The superior varieties of vanilla beans are those from Madagascar and Mexico. But vanilla beans from other regions will be similar if they are picked at peak ripeness and are properly cured. Avoid dry, woody, beans , short , almost no scent. When buying vanilla, you should look for:
· Species: Bourbon or Tahitian. We recommend you to try both varieties...
· Grade: The best option is to choose between Grade-A Gourmet Vanilla Beans (Longs: 14-17cm) or Grade-A Premium Vanilla Beans (Super: 18cm++), however you may choose Grade B beans for extract-making or to make gourmet products.

· Length: The longer the bean the more the quantity of its caviar (seeds). However, there are no differences of quality and flavor with shorter beans of similar grade.

· Appearance: Good quality vanilla beans should be chocolate brown to black, supple and flexible, plump, moist and oily with strong aroma. A good test is to tie a knot in the bean. This should be done with ease, without breaking or splitting.

When scraping the caviar from the inside of the pod, the seeds should come off the skin easily, with no mushy residue being evident. You can scrape the seeds carefully using a teaspoon. You may often see tiny white crystals on the inside or outside of the bean. These are the highly desirable vanillin crystals.

Q9: How to use Vanilla Beans?

Use the bean whole as the entire bean is filled with flavor. In fact, the pod has more flavor than the seeds. Cut the bean and use a portion at a time or you can use the whole bean, depending on the depth of flavor required. Vanilla beans can usually be used several times. Rinse and dry the bean pieces after using them. Just air-dry the pieces and you can use them to make vanilla sugar, coffee and tea or finely ground to make vanilla powder to add additional flavor to ice-creams, cookies and cereals. If there is only the pod left, or, if the bean has been used several times for flavoring beverages let the pieces dry, and mix in with sugar or coffee in a jar.


Q10: How to cut the Vanilla Bean.

To cut open a bean, lay it flat on a cutting surface. Holding one end of the bean to the surface, carefully slice the bean with a knife length-wise. Then, carefully scrape the fleshy seeds and pulp (the 'caviar') into the liquid mixture to be flavored. You can also add in the bean pod. Infuse for at least 10 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean at the end when your preparation is ready leaving behind just the tiny black seeds. Ideally, you would allow this to steep for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the bean pod before using.

Q11: How should I store my gourmet vanilla beans?

Keep the vanilla in an airtight container (we recommend a glass jar) at room temperature and away from direct sunlight. Kept this way, it can be stored for 12 months. Do not store vanilla beans in the refrigerator or freezer! (The cold will dry them out and may promote a particular type of vanilla mold.) The important thing is that the temperature is kept relatively constant and that air is allowed to circulate a bit (unless they are vacuum-packed, in which case you can keep them that way until use). If you do store them in an air tight, sealed container, we recommend opening it every couple of weeks or so to let the air circulate a bit.

Do not worry if you see whitish powder on the surface of the beans for those are vanillin crystals - gold of the vanilla bean! These crystals are quite edible and very flavorful.

If you are uncertain whether the beans are covered with crystals or mildewed, take them into the sunlight. The crystals are similar to mineral crystals and will reflect the sun's rays, creating the colors of the rainbow. Mildew, on the other hand, will be dull and flat in the light, and may also smell bad. If the bean is mildewed, throw it away as the mildew will spread to uninfected beans.

Q12: How long will gourmet vanilla beans remain fresh?

Stored properly, gourmet beans should remain moist and easy to work with for at least a year, many times quite a bit longer. If the beans do dry out a bit, you can place a half of a small potato in a jar with them to soften them for use. You can also soften them a bit by placing them in some warm water or milk just before use.

Q13: Which country produces the best Vanilla Beans?

There are no secrets to producing fine vanilla beans...the finest vanilla beans can only come from the finest vanilla plant tended with much care and passion. Today about 70-80% of the world's vanilla comes from the islands of Madagascar and Reunion in the Indian Ocean where the plants were first introduced around 1840. The Madagascar or Madagascar-Bourbon vanilla beans are often referred to as "bourbon beans" because the French first planted the vine on the Isle de Bourbon. These beans have a smooth, rich, sweet flavor and are the thinnest of the vanilla beans grown.

The Mexican vanilla bean is thicker and darker bean that has a smooth, strong, rich fragrance and flavor. Some say they are the best. The one problem is that some manufacturers of vanilla products in Mexico add coumarin, which is banned by the FDA because it can cause liver and kidney damage. So make sure you always buy Mexican vanilla products from a reputable supplier.

Tahitian vanilla beans are the thickest of the three and almost black in color. They are not as flavorful as the other two but are very aromatic, with complex floral aromas, which make them popular in making perfumes.


Q14: Are there any therapeutic benefits or medicinal quality to vanilla beans?

From venom antidotes to respiratory congestion to heart conditions, Vanilla was traditionally used around the world both medically and for spiritual healing. Thanks to contemporary science, the study of ingredients used in ancient health remedies reveals more and more of their factual and superstitious qualities. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in the USA was one of the first organization to determine factual therapeutic properties of essential oils used in aromatherapy. The methods even includes MRI research.

Vanilla is said to help relieve stress, emotionally soothing and comforting, soothe the stomach, stave hunger and cravings; and makes a natural aphrodisiac! Aromatherapists use vanilla essential oil to create a relaxed, euphoric mood and to counteract tension, frustration and irritability. Vanilla's sweet and strong scent provides your senses literally with a little "food for thought". Its vibrant scent instantly quell hunger and sweets-cravings for a short period of time.

The molecular structure of pure vanilla essential oil is similar in composition and structure to human pheromones and can intermingle with them easily. Meaning, the scent of vanilla easily combines with and compliments your personal scent. Vanilla is scientifically an aphrodisiac! The ancient Totonacos who first cultivated vanilla considered vanilla beans as potent aphrodisiac. Studies at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago have indicated that vanilla can both promote sexual arousal in men and also help people fall asleep faster and more quickly into the REM or dream state.

However, please beware! Most vanilla scented products do not contain pure natural Vanilla Essential Oils or extracts. Instead of vanilla, many manufacturers opt to use Vanillin, a cheaper and synthetic version of Vanilla aroma and taste.

Q15: I was told to be wary of vanilla beans that came from South America, please
explain the reason behind this?


One fraud to be especially aware of and avoid is vanilla (usually "bargain" priced) that has been adulterated with coumarin. Since pure vanilla extract is expensive because of the cost of its production, a “bargain” that is “too good to be true” should be viewed with due caution.

Coumarin is derived from the tonka bean (Dipteryx ordorata ) that grows on a tree native to Brazil. Because it's cheap and some of its constituents are similar to those in pure vanilla, is often added to vanillas from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It adds a strong vanilla-like aroma but little flavor. Coumarin is known to cause liver damage and is a potential carcinogen, and has been banned as a food ingredient by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States since 1954.

Q16: What are the equivalences of vanilla products?

Vanilla is sold in different forms: extract and essence, pods (beans), powdered, and vanilla sugar.

Vanilla Extract is the most popular way that vanilla is used by home bakers. Vanilla extract is produced by steeping the vanilla beans in an alcohol and water solution for several months, sometimes with sugar added, thereby producing a clear dark liquid with a rich flavor that is highly aromatic. The FDA requires that pure vanilla extract contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid and contain 35%alcohol. This is called one-fold vanilla extract and is what you find in stores. Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract is an excellent vanilla that can be found in specialty food stores and by mail order. Do not add vanilla extract to hot liquids as the alcohol evaporates, along with some of the vanilla flavor.

Vanilla beans and vanilla extract can often be substituted for one another, but you will get a more true and interesting flavor when you use pure vanilla beans.

1 vanilla bean equals 1 pouch of vanilla infusion
1 vanilla bean equals 1 teaspoon of pure ground vanilla
1 vanilla bean equals 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 inch of vanilla bean is equal to 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

So the next time your recipe calls for a real vanilla bean pod, you will know before you faint, why it is so expensive.

This is Raven-as the crow flies!

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