Learn about Vanilla

Vanilla Cultivation & Processing

Vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world! It is also the second most expensive spice flavoring agent and the reason for it’s high cost is that it is the most time and labor-intensive crop when taken in consideration cultivation and processing. The vanilla grown in Costa Rica is a Vanilla planifolia (Fragrans) hybrid, cured according to the “Bourbon method” popular in Madagascar and the vanilla islands in the Indian Ocean. The vanilla as well as the other spices and essential oil crops are cultivated within the tropical rain forest. The vanilla vine is grown on a host tree. The pods are long, slender and cylindrical in shape and filled with thousand of tiny, edible seeds.


Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the 35,000 orchid species and is native to Central America, southeastern Mexico, the West Indies and northern South America. Vanilla pods are the fruit of the vanilla orchid, a large, green stemmed, climbing perennial plant with a fleshy, succulent stem, smooth, thick, oblong and lancelot bright green leaves and numerous twining aerial roots by which it clings to trees in its wild state. Each pod is the product of the manual pollination of the vanilla orchid flower. If left unattended vanilla vines may grow to 30m, climbing to the tops of tall forest trees. The pods, commercially called beans, have no flavour when picked, as the flavour develops during the curing process. The beans are very dark brown and contain tiny black seeds.

Hand pollination sequence

The growing vanilla beans

Origin and History

Vanilla is native to the tropical rainforest of south-eastern Mexico and Central America. The Totonacans were the first known Mexican tribe to cultivate vanilla. Hernan Cortez was the first European to taste vanilla in Mexico in 1520. As he entered the Aztec capital, Montezuma the emperor, handed him the royal beverage, chocolatl, a beverage of cocoa beans, corn, vanilla pods and honey. “Tlilyochitl”, the Aztec word for vanilla, was derived from “tilli” for black and “zachitl” meaning pod. The Spaniards intoduced vanilla to the courts of Europe and it quickly became the royal drink of choice. By the end of the 16th century, factories were established to manufacture chocolate with vanilla flavouring. However it wasn’t until an ex-slave, Edmond Albius, perfected a method for hand pollination that vanilla became a commercial plantation crop. Until recently Madagascar was producing 80% of the world’s production. Indonesia, Tahiti and Uganda are also major producers with India, China and Vietnam entering the vanilla production phase.

Vanilla has been commercially produced in Costa Rica for over 20 years, the majority of the recent production coming from the central pacific foothills near Manuel Antonio National Park. There are over 50 species of vanilla but only a handful are used commercially.


Vanilla pods must be cured in order for the vanillin, which gives vanilla its distinctive flavour, to be produced. The curing method facilitates the enzymatic process that transforms glucovanillin into vanillin. It consists mainly of keeping the pods warm and slowly drying for three to four months until they become pliable and deep brown, sometimes forming a fine white crystalline coating of vanillin on the surface of the beans.

Conditioning/curing vanilla

Buying and Storing

Vanilla extract/essence can be purchased in 2 ounce, 4 ounce and 8 ounce bottles and the pods (around six to eight inches long), can be purchase as whole beans. Pods should be soft and very dark brown, almost black. Store in an airtight container.

Preparation and Use

Over 150 organic compounds make up the flavor of vanilla, which fortunately has limited the quality of artificial imitators. Vanilla enhances fruits and other flavors by intensifying and highlighting their natural sweetness. It softens the flavor of eggs and accentuates spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, is excellent in smoothies, coffee and teas. Though long associated with desserts and sweets, it is a fine complement to savory dishes incorporating seafood, veal and poultry. Vanilla beans can be stored in a jar of sugar, permeating it with their own sweet aroma. The pod can be chopped finely or processed in a blender and used to flavour cakes, puddings, ice cream, milkshakes and many everyday sweet dishes. The whole pod can also be used to flavour custards and other liquids, taken out, dried carefully and used again up to three or four times. To flavour milk, allow one bean per 500 ml, bring to the boil and allow to stand for an hour.

Vanilla inflorescense

Vanilla drying on mats

Vanilla beans with flowers

For vanilla recipes I would recommend Vanilla Chef by Patricia Rain. I believe it is the best on the planet. You can buy it on this web site. Also visit www.vanilla.com for more facts and other vanilla products. Click here for great vanilla recipes.

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