Learn All About Vanilla Beans

Everyone has heard of vanilla, usually when it is called for in a baking recipe. What is vanilla exactly, where does it come from? Why has the price dramatically increased? Have your questions answered here, learn all about vanilla beans.

What are Vanilla Beans?

Vanilla beans are pods that are grown and harvested from a vanilla orchid plant. The pods found on these orchids are not actually bean pods, like a green bean would be. These pods are considered to be a fruit rather then a vegetable.  They are green when harvested, then turn brown as the curing process takes place.

Vanilla Beans on the Vine

Parts of a Vanilla Bean

There really are two main parts of a cured ready to go vanilla bean they are the Pod and the seeds (caviar).

  • Pod – The outer shell of the vanilla bean
  • Seeds ( Caviar) – Thousands of tiny little seeds that are found inside the pod. These are the black flecks that are seen in vanilla bean products.

Where Do Vanilla Beans Come From?

Vanilla is originally from Mexico, there has been evidence that the Totonacs Tribe was the first to use vanilla. In the 15th century the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs and discovered the use of Vanilla. Now most vanilla beans come from Madagascar, Mexico, and Tahiti.  The type of vanilla beans that come from Madagascar and Mexico grow from the Vanilla Plainfolia species vanilla orchid. Tahitian vanilla beans are grown on their own species of vanilla orchid, Vanilla tahitensis. Each place produces their own variety of beans, the beans have their own signature characteristics.

Growing Vanilla Beans

Vanilla Orchids are strange plants, they grow in tropic climates and it takes three years for the plants to mature. After that long three year wait a flower opens for one day only, during that short time the flower must be hand pollinated.  Vanilla orchids must be hand pollinated because there is only one type of bee, the Melipona Bee that pollinates them, and it is native to Mexico.

Once pollination is complete the vanilla beans start to grow, this takes 9 months for them to mature enough for harvest. The beans that are harvested don’t come off the vine ready to ship. They get their vanilla aroma and characteristics during the curing process.

The curing process is the last and most important part of growing vanilla beans. Boiling water is used (resembles blanching) to stop the beans from ripening. Next the beans are wrapped to steam them, and then dried for three to four weeks. Finally, they are wrapped and left to sit for about a month during the last step called conditioning. Growing and curing vanilla is a very time-consuming process.

Vanilla Beans Curing

Why is Vanilla so Expensive?

In the last few years there has been a spike in vanilla prices, making vanilla one of the most expensive spices on the planet. There are several things that have contributed to the price increase, and I’m sure there are very in-depth answers, but I am only going to skim the surface.

  • Vanilla Orchids are hard to grow without the right conditions.
  • Vanilla farming is very time consuming and labor intensive. Very hands on pollinating and curing process
  • .Bad conditions in the worlds leading vanilla producing country Madagascar. Supplies have been wiped out and it takes 3 to 4 years to grow more mature vanilla orchids. Low Supply for High Demand.
  • Vanilla Bean theft is a real thing that makes it hard and hazardous for farmers. (So much so that they tattoo their beans)
  • High Demand with a Low Supply – Over the years people have taken the all-natural movement very seriously, making the demand for real vanilla skyrocket.

As I stated before these reasons just scratch the surface of what is probably a very in-depth conversation. If you interested and would like to look into it more, you can start with this article from the Business Insider.

Vanilla Bean Powder

What are Vanilla Beans Used For?

  1. Vanilla Extract
    The most common product that is made from vanilla beans is vanilla extract. This is made when vanilla beans are submerged in an alcohol and left to steep for 10 months to a year.
  2. Vanilla Paste
    Vanilla bean paste is when the caviar, bean pods and extract are all mixed with sugar and other ingredients, then boiled down to create a syrup like paste. Vanilla extract, caviar and vanilla bean paste can be substituted interchangeably in recipes that call for vanilla.
  3. Vanilla Powder
    The vanilla bean powder is the result of dehydrated beans run through a grinder or crushed with mortar and pestle to create a fine powder.  I personally have used this dried powder to create vanilla sugar which is great in coffee!

Where Can You Buy Vanilla Beans?

There are many places you can buy vanilla beans online or in- person. Personally I have only ever bought mine from one source IndriVanilla. I have heard of others buying from places such as Costco and Amazon. No matter where you buy them be sure to check out reviews and inspect their products.

Vanilla Bean Conversion

What Are You Buying?

Vanilla beans are sold by grade, there is a Grade A bean and a Garde B bean. There are district differences in appearance and they have different uses.

What is the Difference

Grade A vanilla beans have a higher moisture content and are full of the flavorful caviar. Vanilla beans of this quality are considered the gourmet bean and are used for cooking as well as extract. Grade B beans have a lower moisture content and bought for the purpose of making extract. These beans are call the extract grade beans.

So which grade is the better bean? This depends on what you are using them for. If you your plan is to do a lot of baking with vanilla flecks present then Grade A beans are what are better for you. If you do not plan on using the caviar and extract is your only goal then Grade B extract beans are the better beans for you.

Are Vanilla Beans Worth It To You?

Vanilla Beans are no longer only for the experienced baker. Making real vanilla extract and using vanilla beans has become a a staple in many kitchens. With the increased interest comes the increase in demand. A high demand for something that takes years to produce, has increased the expense for all that are in need of them. I am one of the many that has a vanilla extract jar or two steeping away in a dark cupboard, I look forward to new beans and all of their uses. If you can find a good source and can spare the expense, having your very own vanilla stash is highly recommended.

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