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Life + Garden

How the World Became Obsessed with Vanilla

Vanilla is thought of as simple and plain — but with over 250 flavor compounds, it’s anything but

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If chocolate is the Casanova of flavors—that rich, dark seducer that can send you into a swoon—then vanilla is The Boy Next Door, the sweet, familiar taste you’ve known since childhood and take for granted. Don’t.

“Vanilla is thought of as simple and plain—but with over 250 flavor compounds, it’s anything but,” explains Matt Nielsen, COO of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in Waukegan, IL. And oh, what those 250-plus compounds can do! Vanilla brings out the brown sugar flavor in favorite cookie recipes and infuses desserts such as crème brûlée with a deep, rich sweetness. Coca-Cola gets part of its signature taste from pure vanilla extract (the ill-fated “New Coke” in the 1980s attempted to replace pure vanilla in the recipe with vanilla flavoring).

And chocolate simply wouldn’t taste like chocolate without vanilla. “Chocolate tends to be somewhat dull on its own. Vanilla transforms it,” says Patricia Rain, author of Vanilla: A Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor & Fragrance. “Vanilla really enhances the flavor notes of chocolate,” agrees John Scharffenberger, CEO of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in Berkeley, CA, where they prize vanilla so highly that they grind whole vanilla beans with cocoa nibs to make their chocolates.

Among the earliest cultivators of vanilla beans were the Aztecs, who used it to flavor xocolatl, a cocoa-based drink that was the precursor to modern-day chocolate. When the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez introduced vanilla beans to the 16th-century Spanish royal court, the beans were considered an aphrodisiac. Vanilla beans remained a delicacy, only for royalty and the rich, until the 19th century.

Vanilla plants are tropical vining orchids and the only members of the orchid family whose flowers havean edible fruit. Today,producing long, dark, fragrant vanilla beans is a year-long endeavor that involves hand pollinating the blossoms, aging the beans on the vine for nine months, then curing them for three to four months—all done on small farms in a handful of tropical regions.

A wide variety of vanilla types and products are now available. Gourmet grocery stores stock whole beans and pure extracts, and the demand for organic vanilla is growing. Vanilla varieties are known by the regions where they are produced, and each has distinctive flavor characteristics.

Madagascar vanilla  Also called Bourbon vanilla, it’s considered the gold standard. Madagascar beans are long and thin, and their flavor is rich, mellow and creamy, perfect in desserts such as cheesecake and ice cream.Mexican vanilla Spicy and sweet, it’s prized by cooks for its robust flavor, which particularly suits cinnamon and nutmeg. But Rain and Nielsen both warn against buying Mexican vanilla extract outside the United States; its production is unregulated elsewhere, and it can contain iffy flavor enhancers, including coumarin, a carcinogen outlawed by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Tahitian vanilla Tahitian beans are wide and moist, and have a mild, floral flavor that goes well with fruit. Indonesian vanilla This pungent, woody variety holds up well to heat and is particularly suited to chocolate making. Most of the pure vanilla extract sold in supermarkets is made with Indonesian vanilla, according to Nielsen.


Rain encourages using vanilla in more than just sweets and baked goods. “I like to put a few drops in creamed corn, peas and green beans to bring out the natural sweetness of these vegetables,” she says. “Vanilla can also help cut the acidity of unripe fruit. When strawberries don’t have quite the flavor you want, adding a drop or two of vanilla will give them a fresh lift.”

Try adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract to Italian tomato sauces and spicy chilis to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, or whisk it into a vinaigrette for a sweet, aromatic salad dressing. Want to try a whole vanilla bean in place of extract in your favorite recipes? Slit the bean lengthwise, starting from its wide, flat bottom. Using the back of a knife, scrape out the seeds from the pod, and add them to the butter or shortening of doughs, or whisk them into cream, melted butter or other liquids. One 7-inch vanilla bean equals 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract.

Although chocolate may still rule the roost when it comes to Valentine treats, luscious vanilla shouldn’t be far behind. And it can even be calorie-free: If you love the scent just as much as the flavor, indulge in a perfume vial of Angel, French designer Thierry Mugler’s sophisticated, irresistible ode to vanilla. Delicious.