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Pure vanilla, with its wonderful aromatic flavor, is the most widely used flavoring in pastries, confections, and other desserts.  It is the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron, and as much as flavor chemists try with the glycoside found in the sapwood of certain conifers or from coal extracts, the cheaper synthetic vanillas on the market today do not come close to competing with pure vanilla.  As Rosengarten in 1969 stated, imitation vanilla lacks pure vanilla's "pure, spicy, delicate flavor and peculiar bouquet".

As you learn about vanilla you start to appreciate why it is so expensive.  It begins with a celadon colored orchid, the only orchid of about 20,000 varieties that bears anything edible.  Native only to Central America it took until the 19th century for botanists to figure out how it could be grown commercially in other tropical climates.  The problem was that this orchid, in order to produce the vanilla pod (beans), needs to be pollinated by bees, Melipona bees to be precise, or a species of hummingbird.  And these species were only in Central America.  The second problem to commercial growers was that when the orchid flower opens it does so for a very short time, less than a day.  If the flower is not pollinated by the bees in that short time, it will fall off.  So even though the bees were introduced to other tropical areas of the world, commercial growers could not depend on the bees pollinating all the open orchid flowers.  It wasn't until "hand pollination" of the flowers was developed that vanilla could be successfully grown commercially.

Vanilla, is the fruit of a thick green orchid vine (v. planifolia) that grows wild on the edge of the Mexican tropical forests.  The vines, when grown wild, will grow up to the top of tall trees in the jungle.  Commercially, the vines are pruned for a few reasons.  One, is that the vines will not flower until they stop growing.  And two, the vines need to be at a height where workers can reach them.  Once the vines stop growing they produce clusters of buds that eventually develop into orchids, up to 1000 flowers for one vine.  Not all the flowers are hand pollinated though.  They are thinned out so as to guarantee good quality beans, albeit fewer in quantity.  After hand pollination, the flowers develop into long thin green pods or beans that can grow up to 12 inches (30 cm) long.  Average length is about 8 inches long.  These tasteless and odorless green pods are hand picked when they are still not ripe and then the fermentation process begins.  The beans are first plunged into hot water and then the 'drying' and 'sweating' process starts.  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 up to two years.  Once dried and cured the vanilla pods need to be kept airtight to retain their wonderful flavor.

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 a 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. 

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.  There are two fold and three fold extracts, called essences, but these are very strong and are mainly used by professionals.  Do not add vanilla extract to hot liquids as the alcohol evaporates, along with some of the vanilla flavor. 

When buying vanilla extract make sure it is labeled "pure".  The imitation vanilla extracts are made with synthetic vanilla (from glycoside found in the sapwood of certain conifers or from coal extracts) and leave a bitter after taste.  Products labeled Vanilla Flavoring are a combination of pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla extract.

When you use the whole vanilla bean the complexity of flavors and aromas of the bean are released.  In custards, milk, creams, syrups, and other liquids they impart a wonderful flavor and their small dark seeds add dimension to your dessert.  Vanilla beans are most commonly sold in small plastic cylinders in specialty grocery stores and health food stores.  Look for beans that are shiny and black, tender, plump and moist, preferably with the white powder of vanillin on them.  Never buy hard, dry and shriveled beans because they are past their prime. To use; cut the beans in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and pulp.  Add this, along with the pod, to your liquid and steep.  The pods can then be removed, rinsed, dried, and placed in granulated white sugar to produce what is called vanilla sugar.

Vanilla sugar is when a vanilla bean has been added to white granulated sugar or confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar.  The bean is cut in half and buried in the sugar, covered, and left for a week or two to allow the vanilla to permeate through the sugar.  This vanilla sugar can be used in place of regular sugar and adds a wonderful vanilla flavor to desserts.  To make vanilla sugar place a cut vanilla bean into 1-2 cups (200-400 grams) of granulated white sugar or confectioners sugar and store in a covered container for a few weeks before using.  One tablespoon of vanilla sugar has the flavoring power of 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Vanilla Powder is produced by grinding whole dried vanilla beans until powdery.  The advantage to vanilla powder is it can be added to warm liquids and the vanilla flavor will not evaporate as it does with extracts.  It can be found in some specialty grocery stores or else by mail order. 

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Called "the orchid of flavor"

The Aztecs developed the fermentation process of sweating and drying the beans to develop the vanillin.  They used vanilla to flavor their cocoa drinks "xocolatl".  Vanilla is still used today to flavor chocolate.

Vanilla was once so rare and expensive that only royalty had access to it.

Vanilla was once considered an aphrodisiac.

The word "vanilla" comes from the Spanish word "vainilla" which means little sheath, referring to the pod's long thin shape.

The vanilla bean's flavor, like coffee beans and chocolate pods, is highly dependent on the climate and soil where they are grown.

Three most common types of vanilla pods (beans):

1) Madagascar or Bourbon- Madagascar vanilla pods

2) Mexican vanilla pods

3) Tahitian vanilla pods

Pods (Beans) are graded by appearance:

1) Fine Vanilla - these beans are black, frosted with the vanillin, and very fragrant.  Length - 8-12 inches (20-30 cm)

2) Woody Vanilla - the beans will have a dry dull surface with no frost of vanillin on their surface.  Length - 5-8 inches (12-20 cm)

3) Vanillon - the partly opened beans are brown and soft, thick and flat, rarely have the frost of vanillin and tend to have a slightly bitter smell.   Length - 4-5 inches (10-13 cm)

Note:  To make your own vanilla extract, place 1 whole vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise, into 3/4 cup (180 ml) of vodka.  Cover tightly and let steep for 6 months before using.

Substitution: 1 whole vanilla bean = 2 - 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract





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