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Vanilla is a flavor derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species, flat-leaved vanilla (V. planifolia). The word vanilla, derived from the diminutive of the Spanish word vaina (vaina itself meaning sheath or pod), simply translates as little pod. Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid, called tlilxochitl by the Aztecs, and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s.
Initial attempts to cultivate vanilla outside Mexico and Central America proved futile because of the symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and its natural pollinator, the local species of Melipona bee. Pollination is required to set the fruit from which the flavoring is derived. In 1837, Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren discovered this fact and pioneered a method of artificially pollinating the plant. The method proved financially unworkable and was not deployed commercially. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a slave who lived on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, discovered at the age of 12 that the plant could be hand-pollinated. Hand-pollination allowed global cultivation of the plant.
Three major cultivars of vanilla currently are grown globally, all of which derive from a species originally found in Mesoamerica, including parts of modern-day Mexico. The various subspecies are Vanilla planifolia (syn. V. fragrans), grown on Madagascar, Réunion, and other tropical areas along the Indian Ocean; V. tahitensis, grown in the South Pacific; and V. pompona, found in the West Indies, and Central and South America. The majority of the world's vanilla is the V. planifolia variety, more commonly known as Bourbon vanilla (after the former name of Réunion, Île Bourbon) or Madagascar vanilla, which is produced in Madagascar and neighboring islands in the southwestern Indian Ocean, and in Indonesia. Leptotes bicolor is used in the same way in South America.
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, which author Frederic Rosengarten, Jr. described in The Book of Spices as "pure, spicy, and delicate" and its complex floral aroma depicted as a "peculiar bouquet". As a result, vanilla is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture and aromatherapy.
The Totonac people, who inhabit the East Coast of Mexico in the present-day state of Veracruz, were the first to cultivate vanilla. According to Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.
In the 15th century, Aztecs invading from the central highlands of Mexico conquered the Totonacs, and soon developed a taste for the vanilla pods. They named the fruit tlilxochitl, or "black flower", after the matured fruit, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked. Subjugated by the Aztecs, the Totonacs paid tribute by sending vanilla fruit to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.
Until the mid-19th century, Mexico was the chief producer of vanilla. In 1819, however, French entrepreneurs shipped vanilla fruits to the islands of Réunion and Mauritius in hopes of producing vanilla there. After Edmond Albius discovered how to pollinate the flowers quickly by hand, the pods began to thrive. Soon, the tropical orchids were sent from Réunion Island to the Comoros Islands and Madagascar, along with instructions for pollinating them. By 1898, Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros Islands produced 200 metric tons of vanilla beans, about 80% of world production. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Indonesia is currently responsible for the vast majority of the world's Bourbon vanilla production and 58% of the world total vanilla fruit production.
The market price of vanilla rose dramatically in the late 1970s after a tropical cyclone ravaged key croplands. Prices remained high through the early 1980s despite the introduction of Indonesian vanilla. In the mid-1980s, the cartel that had controlled vanilla prices and distribution since its creation in 1930 disbanded. Prices dropped 70% over the next few years, to nearly US$20 per kilogram; 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 per kilogram in 2004, bringing new countries into the vanilla industry. A good crop, coupled with decreased demand caused by the production of imitation vanilla, pushed the market price down to the $40 per kilogram range in the middle of 2005. By 2010, prices were down to US$20/per kilo.
Madagascar (especially the fertile Sava region) accounts for much of the global production of vanilla. Mexico, once the leading producer of natural vanilla with an annual yield of 500 tons, produced only 10 tons of vanilla in 2006. An estimated 95% of "vanilla" products are artificially flavored with vanillin derived from lignin instead of vanilla fruits.
Vanilla was completely unknown in the Old World before Cortés. Spanish explorers arriving on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early 16th century gave vanilla its current name. Spanish and Portuguese sailors and explorers brought vanilla into Africa and Asia later that century. They called it vainilla, or "little pod". The word vanilla entered the English language in 1754, when the botanist Philip Miller wrote about the genus in his Gardener’s Dictionary. Vainilla is from the diminutive of vaina, from the Latin vagina (sheath) to describe the way the pod must be split open to expose the seeds.
The main species harvested for vanilla is Vanilla planifolia. Although it is native to Mexico, it is now widely grown throughout the tropics. Indonesia and Madagascar are the world's largest producers. Additional sources include V. pompona and V. tahitiensis (grown in Niue and Tahiti), although the vanillin content of these species is much less than V. planifolia.
Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing up an existing tree (also called a tutor), pole, or other support. It can be grown in a wood (on trees), in a plantation (on trees or poles), or in a "shader", in increasing orders of productivity. Its growth environment is referred to as its terroir, and includes not only the adjacent plants, but also the climate, geography, and local geology. Left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downward so the plant stays at heights accessible by a standing human. This also greatly stimulates flowering.
The distinctively flavored compounds are found in the fruit, which results from the pollination of the flower. One flower produces one fruit. V. planifolia flowers are hermaphroditic: They carry both male (anther) and female (stigma) organs; however, to avoid self-pollination, a membrane separates those organs. The flowers can be naturally pollinated only by bees of the Melipona genus found in Mexico (abeja de monte or mountain bee). This bee provided Mexico with a 300-year-long monopoly on vanilla production, from the time it was first discovered by Europeans and the French first transplanted the vines to their overseas colonies, until a substitute was found for them. The vines would grow, but would not fruit outside of Mexico. Growers tried to bring this bee into other growing locales, to no avail. The only way to produce fruits without the bees is artificial pollination. And today, even in Mexico, hand pollination is used extensively.
In 1836, botanist Charles François Antoine Morren was drinking coffee on a patio in Papantla (in Veracruz, Mexico) and noticed black bees flying around the vanilla flowers next to his table. He watched their actions closely as they would land and work their way under a flap inside the flower, transferring pollen in the process. Within hours, the flowers closed and several days later, Morren noticed vanilla pods beginning to form. Morren immediately began experimenting with hand pollination. A few years later in 1841, a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion, a method still used today. Using a beveled sliver of bamboo, an agricultural worker lifts the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, then, using the thumb, transfers the pollinia from the anther to the stigma. The flower, self-pollinated, will then produce a fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, so growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labor-intensive task.
The fruit, a seed capsule, if left on the plant, will ripen and open at the end; as it dries, the phenolic compounds crystallize, giving the fruits a diamond-dusted appearance, which the French call givre (hoarfrost). It will then release the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny, flavorless seeds. In dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, these seeds are recognizable as black specks.
Like other orchids' seeds, vanilla seeds will not germinate without the presence of certain mycorrhizal fungi. Instead, growers reproduce the plant by cutting: they remove sections of the vine with six or more leaf nodes, a root opposite each leaf. The two lower leaves are removed, and this area is buried in loose soil at the base of a support. The remaining upper roots will cling to the support, and often grow down into the soil. Growth is rapid under good conditions.
The term French vanilla is often used to designate preparations with a strong vanilla aroma, contain vanilla grains and may also contain eggs (especially egg yolks). The appellation originates from the French style of making vanilla ice cream with a custard base, using vanilla pods, cream, and egg yolks. Inclusion of vanilla varietals from any of the former French dependencies or overseas France noted for their exports may in fact be a part of the flavoring, though it may often be coincidental. Alternatively, French vanilla is taken to refer to a vanilla-custard flavor. Syrup labeled as French vanilla may include custard, caramel or butterscotch flavors in addition to vanilla.
Though there are many compounds present in the extracts of vanilla, the compound vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is primarily responsible for the characteristic flavor and smell of vanilla. Another minor component of vanilla essential oil is piperonal (heliotropin). Piperonal and other substances affect the odor of natural vanilla. Vanillin was first isolated from vanilla pods by Gobley in 1858. By 1874, it had been obtained from glycosides of pine tree sap, temporarily causing a depression in the natural vanilla industry.
Vanilla essence comes in two forms. Real seedpod extract is an extremely complicated mixture of several hundred different compounds, including acetaldehyde, acetic acid, furan-2-carbaldehyde, hexanoic acid, 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, 2-methoxy-4-(prop-2-en-1-yl)phenol, methyl 3-phenylprop-2-enoate, and 2-methylpropanoic acid. Synthetic essence, consisting basically of a solution of synthetic vanillin in ethanol, is derived from phenol and is of high purity.
UN Food & Agriculture Organization 
In general, good vanilla will only come from good vines and through careful production methods. Commercial vanilla production can be performed under open field and "greenhouse" operations. Both production systems share the following similarities:
Vanilla grows best in a hot, humid climate from sea level to an elevation of 1500 m. The ideal climate has moderate rainfall, 1500–3000 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%, and under normal greenhouse conditions, it can be achieved by an evaporative cooler. However, since greenhouse vanilla is grown near the equator and under polymer (HDPE) netting (shading of 50%), this humidity can be achieved by the environment. 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 of 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. Fertilization varies with soil conditions, but general recommendations are: 40 to 60 g of N, 20 to 30 g of P2O5 and 60 to 100 g of K2O should be applied to each plant per year besides organic manures, such as vermicompost, oil cakes, poultry manure and wood ash. Foliar applications are also good for vanilla, and a solution of 1% NPK (17:17:17) can be sprayed on the plant once a month. Vanilla requires organic matter, so three or four applications of mulch a year are adequate for the plant.
Dissemination of vanilla can be achieved either by stem cutting or by tissue culture. For stem cutting, a progeny garden needs to be established. Recommendations for establishing this garden vary, but in general, trenches of 60 cm (24 in) in width, 45 cm (18 in) in depth and 60 cm (24 in) spacing for each plant are necessary. All plants need to grow under 50% shade, as well as the rest of the crop. Mulching the trenches with coconut husk and micro irrigation provide an ideal microclimate for vegetative growth. Cuttings between 60 and 120 cm (24 and 47 in) should be selected for planting in the field or greenhouse. Cuttings below 60 to 120 cm (24 to 47 in) need to be rooted and raised in a separate nursery before planting. Planting material should always come from unflowered portions of the vine. Wilting of the cuttings before planting provides better conditions for root initiation and establishment.
Before planting the cuttings, trees to support the vine must be planted at least three months before sowing the cuttings. Pits of 30 x 30 x 30 cm are dug 30 cm (12 in) away from the tree and filled with farm yard manure (vermicompost), sand and top soil mixed well. An average of 2000 cuttings can be planted per hectare (2.5 acres). One important consideration is that when planting the cuttings from the base, four leaves should be pruned and the pruned basal point must be pressed into the soil in a way such that the nodes are in close contact with the soil, and are placed at a depth of 15 to 20 cm (5.9 to 7.9 in). The top portion of the cutting is tied to the tree using natural fibers such as banana or hemp.
Tissue culture was first used as a means of creating vanilla plants during the 1980s at Tamil Nadu University. This was the part of the first project to grow V. planifolia in India. At that time, a shortage of vanilla planting stock was occurring in India. The approach was inspired by the work going on to tissue culture other flowering plants. Several methods have been proposed for vanilla tissue culture, but all of them begin from axillary buds of the vanilla vine. In vitro multiplication has also been achieved through culture of callus masses, protocorns, root tips and stem nodes. Description of any of these processes can be obtained from the references listed before, but all of them are successful in generation of new vanilla plants that first need to be grown up to a height of at least 30 cm (12 in) before they can be planted in the field or greenhouse.
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 being carried out by bees of the genus Melipona. These pollinators do not exist outside the orchid's home range, and even within that range, vanilla orchids have only a 1% chance of successful pollination. 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. It takes the fruits five to six weeks to develop, but it takes around six months for the bean to mature. Over-pollination will result in diseases and inferior bean quality. A vine remains productive between 12 and 14 years.
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. Fusarium, Sclerotium, Phytopthora, and Colletrotrichum species cause rots of root, stem, leaf, bean and shoot apex. These diseases can be controlled by spraying Bordeaux mixture (1%), carbendazim (0.2%) and copper oxychloride (0.2%).
Biological control of the spread of such diseases can be managed by applying to the soil Trichoderma (0.5 kg (1.1 lb) per plant in the rhizosphere) and foliar application of pseudomonads (0.2%). 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, snakes and slugs that damage the tender parts of shoot, flower buds and immature fruit, and grasshoppers that affect cutting shoot tips. 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.
Most artificial vanilla products contain vanillin, which can be produced synthetically from lignin, a natural polymer found in wood. Most synthetic vanillin is a byproduct from the pulp used in papermaking, in which the lignin is broken down using sulfites or sulfates. However, vanillin is only one of 171 identified aromatic components of real vanilla fruits.
The orchid species Leptotes bicolor is used as a natural vanilla replacement in Paraguay and southern Brazil.
In the United States, castoreum, the exudate from the castor sacs of mature beavers, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive, often referenced simply as a "natural flavoring" in the product's list of ingredients. It is commonly used in both food and beverages, especially as vanilla and raspberry flavoring. It is also used to flavor some cigarettes and in perfume-making.
The vanilla fruit grows quickly on the vine, but is not ready for harvest until maturity—approximately six months. 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 an indication of the maturity of pods. Each fruit ripens at its own time, requiring a daily harvest. 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. Overmatured fruits are likely to split, causing a reduction in market value. Its commercial value is fixed based on the length and appearance of the pod.
If the fruit is more than 15 cm (5.9 in) in length, it belongs to first-quality product. The largest fruits greater than 16 cm and up to as much as 21 cm are usually reserved for the gourmet vanilla market, for sale to top chefs and restaurants. If the fruits are between 10 and 15 cm long, pods are under the second-quality category, and fruits less than 10 cm 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. The harvested green fruit can be commercialized as such or cured to get a better market price.
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. The method of killing varies, but may be accomplished by heating in hot water, freezing, or scratching, or killing by heating in an oven or exposing the beans to direct sunlight. The different methods give different profiles of enzymatic activity.
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.
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 is a method originating in Mexico that was practiced by the Aztecs.
Sweating is a hydrolytic and oxidative process. Traditionally, it consists of keeping fruits, for seven 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.
Several vanilla fruit grading systems are in use. Each country which produces vanilla has its own grading system, and individual vendors, in turn, sometimes use their own criteria for describing the quality of the fruits they offer for sale.
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.
Higher-grade fruits command higher prices in the market. However, because grade is so dependent on visual appearance and moisture content, fruits with the highest grade do not necessarily contain the highest concentration of characteristic flavor molecules such as vanillin, and are not necessarily the most flavorful.
|Grade||Color||Appearance / Feel||Approximate|
|Black||dark brown to black||supple with oily luster||> 30%|
|TK (Brown, or Semi-Black)||dark brown to black sometimes with a few red streaks||like Black but dryer/stiffer||25 - 30%|
|Red Fox (European quality)||brown with reddish variegation||a few blemishes||25%|
|Red American quality||brown with reddish variegation||similar to European red but more blemishes and dryer/stiffer||22 - 25%|
|Cuts||short, cut, and often split fruits, typically with substandard aroma and color|
† moisture content varies among sources cited
A simplified, alternative grading system has been proposed for classifying vanilla fruits suitable for use in cooking:
|Grade A /|
|15 cm and longer, 100–120 fruits per pound||Also called "Gourmet" or "Prime". 30–35% moisture content.|
|Grade B /|
|10–15 cm, 140–160 fruits per pound||Also called "Extract fruits". 15–25% moisture content.|
|Grade C /|
Under this scheme, vanilla extract is normally made from Grade B fruits.
There are four main commercial preparations of natural vanilla:
Vanilla flavoring in food may be achieved by adding vanilla extract or by cooking vanilla pods in the liquid preparation. A stronger aroma may be attained if the pods are split in two, exposing more of a pod's surface area to the liquid. In this case, the pods' seeds are mixed into the preparation. Natural vanilla gives a brown or yellow color to preparations, depending on the concentration. Good-quality vanilla has a strong aromatic flavor, but food with small amounts of low-quality vanilla or artificial vanilla-like flavorings are far more common, since true vanilla is much more expensive.
A major use of vanilla is in flavoring ice cream. The most common flavor of ice cream is vanilla, and thus most people consider it to be the "default" flavor. By analogy, the term "vanilla" is sometimes used as a synonym for "plain". Although vanilla is a prized flavoring agent on its own, it is also used to enhance the flavor of other substances, to which its own flavor is often complementary, such as chocolate, custard, caramel, coffee, cakes, and others.
The food industry uses methyl and ethyl vanillin. Ethyl vanillin is more expensive, but has a stronger note. Cook's Illustrated ran several taste tests pitting vanilla against vanillin in baked goods and other applications, and, to the consternation of the magazine editors, tasters could not differentiate the flavor of vanillin from vanilla; however, for the case of vanilla ice cream, natural vanilla won out. A more recent and thorough test by the same group produced a more interesting variety of results; namely, high-quality artificial vanilla flavoring is best for cookies, while high-quality real vanilla is very slightly better for cakes and significantly better for unheated or lightly heated foods.
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