Perhaps we all remember our squat-limbed younger selves balanced on a stool, uncapping a bottle of our mother’s vanilla extract. Inhaling the mysterious and intoxicating scent was like a hundred birthday cakes floating past our eager noses. Although “vanilla” is often code for “plain,” the aroma, biology and history of vanilla beans suggests a more intriguing story.
Vanilla beans – long, dark, and slender – are the seedpod of the orchid, Vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico (now grown most commonly in Madagascar and Indonesia), and once cultivated as an aphrodisiac for Aztec royalty. Incidentally, this particular flower is the singular exception to 20,000 other orchid varieties which produce nothing edible.
For only twelve frenzied hours, the vanilla orchid flowers, fleshy and pale yellow, are open and receptive to fertilization. Immune to this world of automated efficiency, the blossoms are still hand-pollinated by growers using a sliver of bamboo and a well-placed thumb. A full year later, after maturing, curing, sweating, fermenting, and drying, the beans are ready for use – oily, leathery and cloaking the most expensive seeds on the global market. The name comes from the Spanish word vaina, meaning sheath or pod.
The vanilla bean contains several hundred different chemical compounds, each working in concert to perform the enigmatic magic of intensifying and brightening other flavors. But, what does this mean? Katie Burford, owner of Durango ice cream shop Cream Bean Berry, says, “vanilla, in small doses, adds depth and complexity to many recipes.” In essence, vanilla extract can make chocolate more itself, cookies more multi-dimensional, and ice cream seem sweeter without any extra sugar.
Beware imitation vanilla obtained from a byproduct of pulp in papermaking, or, sorry to report, the anal glands of mature beavers. (Take-home lesson: pay extra for the real thing).
Real vanilla extract is made from the prolonged courtship of vanilla beans, alcohol and time. Making your own will always be cheaper than buying at the store. And with an ample stash, you’ll feel more emboldened to splash it into your sweet creations. Plus you get to slit open those fragrant pods filled with the sticky paste of seeds, leaving the aroma lingering on your hands for hours.
3-5 whole vanilla beans (sold at most natural food stores)
1 pint vodka, bourbon, or rum (vodka is traditional)
Slice the beans lengthwise and place in a pint jar. Cover with your choice of alcohol.
Let sit for 1 to 3 months. When complete, uncap and use, leaving beans in jar. As your vanilla extract recedes through use, splash some more vodka on the beans.