Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron because growing the vanilla seed pods is labor-intensive. Despite the expense, vanilla is highly valued for its flavor. As a result, vanilla is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture, and aromatherapy.
Vanilla is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species, flat-leaved vanilla (V. planifolia). The majority of the world’s vanilla is the V. planifolia species, more commonly known as Bourbon vanilla or Madagascar vanilla, which is produced in the southwestern Indian Ocean, and in Indonesia. Combined, Madagascar and Indonesia produce two-thirds of the world’s supply of vanilla.
Until the mid-19th century, Mexico was the chief producer of vanilla. And recently, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Indonesia is currently responsible for the vast majority of the world’s Bourbon vanilla production and 58% of the world total vanilla fruit production.
Prices remained high through the early 1980s despite the introduction of Indonesian vanilla. Prices rose sharply again after tropical cyclone Hudah struck Madagascar in April 2000. The cyclone, political instability, and poor weather in the third year drove vanilla prices to an astonishing US$ 500 / kg in 2004, bringing new countries into the vanilla industry.
The four (4) main commercial preparations of natural vanilla are:
- Whole pod.
- Powder (ground pods, kept pure or blended with sugar, starch, or other ingredients).
- Extract (in alcoholic or occasionally glycerol solution; both pure and imitation forms of vanilla contain at least 35% alcohol).
- Vanilla sugar, a packaged mix of sugar and vanilla extract.
Types of Vanilla Beans
Bourbon Madagascar Vanilla Beans are harvested from the Bourbon Islands in Madagascar. Think of these classic vanilla beans as all-purpose. Bursting with sweet and creamy flavor, Bourbon Madagascar Vanilla Beans boost the taste of sweet desserts and savory dishes.
We especially like the beans for baking because they hold their flavor in the finished baked good. These beans are wonderful in custards, ice creams, and savory sauces.
Organic Indonesian Vanilla Beans have smoky, woody flavor.
They’re great for rich desserts, especially chocolate. They also taste delicious in cookies, fruit pies, and jams. Bonus: these Indonesian vanilla beans are organic.
Mexican Vanilla Beans have sweet and creamy flavor with a hint of spice. These versatile beans work in cooking and baking. Mexican Vanilla Beans go well with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices. They’re also delicious with chocolate and chilies. Try Mexican Vanilla Beans in barbecue sauce, salsa, chocolate cake, and ice cream.
Tongan Vanilla Beans are harvested from Tonga, which is a group of islands in the South Pacific. These Bourbon-variety vanilla beans grow in rich soil, resulting in a bold-flavored bean. These beans have a delicately complex profile, intense aroma, and sweet taste. Tongan Vanilla Beans in rich desserts like custards and ice creams. They’re also ideal for flavoring savory or fruity sauces.
In general, quality vanilla only comes from good vines and through careful production methods. Commercial vanilla production can be performed under open field and “greenhouse” operations.
The two production systems share these similarities :
- Plant height and number of years before producing the first grains
- Shade necessities
- Amount of organic matter needed
- A tree or frame to grow around (bamboo, coconut or Erythrina lanceolata)
- Labor intensity (pollination and harvest activities)
Vanilla grows best in a hot, humid climate from sea level to an elevation of 1,500 m. The ideal climate has moderate rainfall, 1,500–3,000 mm, evenly distributed through 10 months of the year. Optimum temperatures for cultivation are 15–30 °C (59–86 °F) during the day and 15–20 °C (59–68 °F) during the night. Ideal humidity is around 80.
Most successful vanilla growing and processing is done in the region within 10 to 20° of the equator.
Soils for vanilla cultivation should be loose, with high organic matter content and loamy texture. They must be well drained, and a slight slope helps in this condition. Soil pH has not been well documented, but some researchers have indicated an optimum soil pH around 5.3. Mulch is very important for proper growth of the vine, and a considerable portion of mulch should be placed in the base of the vine. Vanilla requires organic matter, so three or four applications of mulch a year are adequate for the plant.
In the tropics, the ideal time for planting vanilla is from September to November, when the weather is neither too rainy nor too dry, but this recommendation varies with growing conditions.
Cuttings take one to eight weeks to establish roots, and show initial signs of growth from one of the leaf axils. A thick mulch of leaves should be provided immediately after planting as an additional source of organic matter.
Three years are required for cuttings to grow enough to produce flowers and subsequent pods. As with most orchids, the blossoms grow along stems branching from the main vine. The buds, growing along the 6 to 10 in (15 to 25 cm) stems, bloom and mature in sequence, each at a different interval.
Flowering normally occurs every spring, and without pollination, the blossom wilts and falls, and no vanilla bean can grow. Each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening. In the wild, very few natural pollinators exist, with most pollination thought to be carried out by orchid bees.
As a result, all vanilla grown today is pollinated by hand. A small splinter of wood or a grass stem is used to lift the rostellum or move the flap upward, so the overhanging anther can be pressed against the stigma and self-pollinate the vine.
Generally, one flower per raceme opens per day, so the raceme may be in flower for over 20 days. A healthy vine should produce about 50 to 100 beans per year, but growers are careful to pollinate only five or six flowers from the 20 on each raceme. The first flowers that open per vine should be pollinated, so the beans are similar in age. These agronomic practices facilitate harvest and increases bean quality. The fruits require five to six weeks to develop, but around six months to mature.
Over-pollination results in diseases and inferior bean quality. And vine remains productive between 12 and 14 years.
Pest and Disease Management
Most diseases come from the uncharacteristic growing conditions of vanilla. Therefore, conditions such as excess water, insufficient drainage, heavy mulch, overpollination, and too much shade favor disease development.
Vanilla is susceptible to many fungal and viral diseases cause rots of root, stem, leaf, bean, and shoot apex. Mosaic virus, leaf curl, and cymbidium mosaic potex virus are the common viral diseases.
These diseases are transmitted through the sap, so affected plants must be destroyed. The insect pests of vanilla include beetles and weevils that attack the flower, caterpillars, and slugs that damage the tender parts of shoot, flower buds, and immature fruit, and grasshoppers that affect cutting shoot
If organic agriculture is practiced, insecticides are avoided, and mechanical measures are adopted for pest management. Most of these practices are implemented under greenhouse cultivation, since such field conditions are very difficult to achieve.
Harvesting vanilla fruits is as labor-intensive as pollinating the blossoms. Immature, dark green pods are not harvested. Pale yellow discoloration that commences at the distal end of the fruits is not a good indication of the maturity of pods. Each fruit ripens at its own time, requiring a daily harvest. Yellowing at the blossom end, the current index, occurs before beans accumulate maximum glucovanillin concentrations. Beans left on the vine until they turn brown have higher glucovanillin concentrations but may split and have low quality. Judging bean maturity is difficult as they reach full size soon after pollination.
Glucovanillin accumulates from 20 weeks, maximum about 40 weeks after pollination. Mature green beans have 20% dry matter but less than 2% glucovanillin. The accumulation of dry matter and glucovanillin are highly correlated. To ensure the finest flavor from every fruit, each individual pod must be picked by hand just as it begins to split on the end. Over mature fruits are likely to split, causing a reduction in market value. The harvested green fruit can be commercialized as such or cured to get a better market price.
Its commercial value is fixed based on the length and appearance of the pod. The largest fruits greater than 16 cm (6.3 in) and up to as much as 21 cm (8.3 in) are usually reserved for the gourmet vanilla market, for sale to top chefs and restaurants.
If the fruit is more than 15 cm (5.9 in) in length, it is categorized as first-quality. If the fruits are between 10 and 15 cm long, pods are under the second-quality category. And fruits less than 10 cm (3.9 in) in length are under the third-quality category. Each fruit contains thousands of tiny black vanilla seeds.
Vanilla fruit yield depends on the care and management given to the hanging and fruiting vines. Any practice directed to stimulate aerial root production has a direct effect on vine productivity. A five-year-old vine can produce between 1.5 and 3 kg (3.3 and 6.6 lb) pods, and this production can increase up to 6 kg (13 lb) after a few years.
When propagating vanilla orchids from cuttings or harvesting ripe vanilla beans, care must be taken to avoid contact with the sap from the plant’s stems. The sap of most species of Vanilla orchid which exudes from cut stems or where beans are harvested can cause moderate to severe dermatitis if it comes in contact with bare skin. Washing the affected area with warm soapy water will effectively remove the sap in cases of accidental contact with the skin. The sap of vanilla orchids contains calcium oxalate crystals, which appear to be the main causative agent of contact dermatitis in vanilla plantation workers.
Several methods exist in the market for curing vanilla; nevertheless, all of them consist of four basic steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning of the beans.
The vegetative tissue of the vanilla pod is killed to stop the vegetative growth of the pods and disrupt the cells and tissue of the fruits, which initiates enzymatic reactions responsible for the aroma.
Testing has shown mechanical disruption of fruit tissues can cause curing processes, including the degeneration of glucovanillin to vanillin, so the reasoning goes that disrupting the tissues and cells of the fruit allow enzymes and enzyme substrates to interact.
The method of killing varies, but may be accomplished by heating in hot water, freezing or scratching, killing by heating in an oven and exposing the beans to direct sunlight. The different methods give different profiles of enzymatic activity.
Hot-water killing may consist of dipping the pods in hot water (63–65 °C (145–149 °F)) for three minutes, or at 80 °C (176 °F) for 10 seconds.
In scratch killing, fruits are scratched along their length. Frozen or quick-frozen fruits must be thawed again for the subsequent sweating stage.
Tied in bundles and rolled in blankets, fruits may be placed in an oven at 60 °C (140 °F) for 36 to 48 hours.
Exposing the fruits to sunlight until they turn brown, a method originating in Mexico, was practiced by the Aztecs.
Sweating is a hydrolytic and oxidative process. Traditionally, it consists of keeping fruits, for 7 to 10 days, densely stacked and insulated in wool or other cloth. This retains a temperature of 45–65 °C (113–149 °F) and high humidity. Daily exposure to the sun may also be used, or dipping the fruits in hot water.
The fruits are brown and have attained much of the characteristic vanilla flavor and aroma by the end of this process, but still retain a 60-70% moisture content by weight.
Reduction of the beans to 25–30% moisture by weight, to prevent rotting and to lock the aroma in the pods, is always achieved by some exposure of the beans to air, and usually (and traditionally) intermittent shade and sunlight. Fruits may be laid out in the sun during the mornings and returned to their boxes in the afternoons, or spread on a wooden rack in a room for three to four weeks, sometimes with periods of sun exposure.
Drying is the most problematic of the curing stages; unevenness in the drying process can lead to the loss of vanillin content of some fruits by the time the others are cured.
Conditioning is performed by storing the pods for five to six months in closed boxes, where the fragrance develops. The processed fruits are sorted, graded, bundled, and wrapped in paraffin paper and preserved for the development of desired bean qualities, especially flavor and aroma. The cured vanilla fruits contain an average of 2.5% vanillin.
Once fully cured, the vanilla fruits are sorted by quality and graded. In general, vanilla fruit grade is based on the length, appearance (color, sheen, presence of any splits, presence of blemishes), and moisture content of the fruit.
Whole, dark, plump and oily pods that are visually attractive, with no blemishes, and that have a higher moisture content are graded most highly. Such pods are particularly prized by chefs for their appearance and can be featured in gourmet dishes.
Beans that show localized signs of disease or other physical defects are cut to remove the blemishes; the shorter fragments left are called “cuts” and are assigned lower grades, as are fruits with lower moisture contents. Lower-grade fruits tend to be favored for uses in which the appearance is not as important, such as in the production of vanilla flavoring extract and in the fragrance industry.
Vanilla Grade with its Colour, Appearance/Feel & Moisture:
- Black: dark brown to black, supple with oily luster, moisture > 30%.
- Brown/Semi Black: dark brown to black sometimes with a few red streaks, supple with oily luster but dryer/stiffer, moisture 25–30%.
- Red Fox (European Quality): brown with reddish variegation, a few blemishes, moisture 25%.
- Red (American Quality): brown with reddish variegation, similar to European red but more blemishes and dryer/stiffer, moisture 22–25%.
- Cuts: short, often split, typically with substandard aroma and color