Vanilla is derived from the dried, cured beans or fruit pods of the large, green-stemmed climbing perennial, Vanilla planifolia, a member of the orchid family. Although vanilla beans are sometimes used in their whole form, they are most commonly used for producing extracts and flavors.
Vanilla is used principally for ice cream, soft drinks, eggnogs, chocolate confectionery, candy, tobacco, baked goods, puddings, cakes, cookies, liqueurs and as a fragrantly tenacious ingredient in perfumery.
Vanilla originated in Mexico, but today the United States buys vanilla beans from Madagascar, Indonesia, Uganda and Tonga. Most of the world's high-quality beans come from Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa.
Vanilla was enjoyed by the Aztecs in a drink called Xoco-lall, which was made from cocoa and vanilla beans. Cortéz sampled this drink and returned to Spain with reports it contained magical powers. Europeans mixed vanilla beans with their tobacco for smoking and chewing, and considered it a miracle drug.
One of the world's most identifiable and comforting flavors, vanilla continues to soar in popularity. Long revered for its taste and aroma, vanilla has become one of the world's most sought-after ingredients. Vanilla's appeal is universal, covering the spectrum from sweet to savory recipes. Chefs are creating new dimensions of flavor using it in dishes as diverse as salad dressings and lobster. Vanilla is also a natural complement to vegetables, fruits and flavored butters. Food and cosmetics companies are infusing everything from beverages to cereals to toothpastes with its essence. Though supply was greatly diminished during the past two years because of adverse weather conditions, vanilla is again abundant and consumers can enjoy more recipes and products featuring its incredible flavor.
What The Experts Say
"I combine vanilla with pink peppercorns and thyme to make a rub for pork dishes," says Chef Todd Gray, of Equinox in Washington, D.C.
Perfect Flavor Partners Include:
allspice, apples, basil, black pepper, cardamom, chocolate, citrus, coriander, dates, fennel, ginger, mint, pears, pineapple, pomegranate, tarragon, and thyme
Flavor & Aroma
Delicate, sweet, rich flavor; spicy, highly aromatic; persistent exceptional fragrance
Pure vanilla extract is characterized by its delicate, fruity sweet, spicy flavor and aroma. Resinous, woody, pruney, floral/perfumey, and rummy notes are also commonly associated with vanilla.