Delicate, fruity-sweet and spicy with a slightly floral, perfumey aroma… Any guesses on what this month’s Flavor of the Month is? If you said vanilla, you’re right!
Although the term “vanilla” is often used as slang to say something is ordinary or plain, vanilla flavor itself is anything but! Vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world, yet it’s often taken for granted. It’s aromatic and floral notes enhance nearly everything it touches, rounding out the harsh bitterness of chocolate and enhancing the sweetness perception of baked goods. From dairy products to confections and even savory applications, vanilla is a universally recognizable flavor that evokes feelings of warmth, comfort, nostalgia, and indulgence.
Why We Love Vanilla
Before we can tackle the long and fascinating history of how vanilla became the most popular flavor in the world, we need to understand how it captivates our senses. Ask anyone to smell an unmarked bottle of vanilla extract and you will observe a fairly universal phenomenon: the sniffer’s eyes will close lightly with perhaps the faintest hint of eyelash flutter; the muscles in the face, neck, and shoulders will relax; and the corners of the mouth will curve gently upwards in the tell-tale sign of pleasure and fond recollection. As if by instinct, humans are drawn to the scent of vanilla from the depths of their being. Why are we so in love with vanilla flavor?
While we don’t have the whole answer for you here (mainly because science doesn’t, either), we do have some ideas worth sharing. The human sense of smell – which is the way we experience flavor, either orthonasally through sniffing or retronasally through drinking and eating – is unfortunately the least understood of all human senses. This lack of scientific research has a lot to do with the way smell is indelibly linked to emotion, psychology, and memory – confounding variables that are very hard to separate from our physiological reaction to the aroma compounds. This inability to cleanly separate perception from sensation, coupled with respondent fatigue and our difficulty with naming aromas, makes researching smell a true challenge!
Small clinical studies suggest that olfactory exposure to vanillin (the key characterizing note in natural vanilla extract) may soothe and calm distressed infants. A recent study of breast fed infants presents a possible reason for this: under the natural condition of breast-feeding, infants become familiar with flavors, such as vanilla, that are transferred from the mother’s diet to the infant through her breast milk. These early flavor experiences may impact what foods a child gravitates towards later on. If this is true, we are quite literally passing a passion for flavor from one generation to the next. Could this be how our universal love for vanilla was born?
As previously mentioned, vanillin is the key characterizing compound found in natural vanilla flavor. In pure vanilla extract vanillin is clearly the star and is supported by a cast of hundreds of other flavor compounds that add depth and complexity. Vanillin is found in many natural sources, including wood (if you’ve ever wondered where the “vanilla” note in your favorite Chardonnay wine or bourbon comes from, look no further than the oak barrel it was aged in). While vanillin tastes vanilla-ish, and may be naturally derived, it is not pure vanilla and therefore cannot be labeled as such. Vanillin wins on price, however, being a more affordable option than pure vanilla extracted from premium vanilla beans. Think of it this way: the house red at a restaurant tastes enough like wine to satisfy some palates (and most pocketbooks), but lacks the quality and complexity of a finely aged bottle of premium Cabernet Sauvignon. You wouldn’t serve an ordinary wine for an extraordinary occasion, or drink Chateau Costalot on a Tuesday night with cold pizza…right?
Anyone who has eaten a sugar cookie, tucked into a creme brulee, or enjoyed an ice cream sundae knows that vanilla has an uncanny way of making sweet things seem even sweeter. Whether by positive association of vanilla with sweet foods we remember eating, or by the synergistic effect of vanilla aromatics with sweet taste perception (or most likely both), vanilla has a way of enhancing sweetness perception in food and beverages. For years food processors have understood this and have used vanilla whenever they want a confection to taste sweeter, or more recently when formulating for sugar replacement and reduction. If our nose “thinks” an item will be sweet when we smell it, then it often seems sweeter than it actually is when we taste it. Additionally, the sweet aromatics of vanilla can serve to lift other sweet-smelling proteins, carbohydrates, aldehydes, and esters in a blend. In sensory science we call this fun phenomenon “flavor potentiation.”
Vanilla is a great flavor for many foods and beverages – if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be the world’s favorite! The natural creaminess of pure vanilla extract is a perfect match for dairy applications of all kinds, and those deep earthy, woody notes pair flawlessly with chocolate and cocoa. Vanilla beans are fermented prior to extraction, and therefore marry well with other naturally fermented foodstuffs such as tea, coffee, spirits, wine, and bread. Vanilla is a shoo-in for more bakery, dessert, and confectionary items than we can list, and it makes a solid case for complementing nuts and legumes. One category that vanilla traditionally doesn’t play in is savory, however that is changing as we see sauces, dry rubs, and brines feature vanilla as a “secret” ingredient. Just thinking of a black pepper, coffee, and vanilla bean dry rub on a mesquite fired steak makes our mouths water!
Vanilla’s origins and cultivation
Vanilla is a flowering vine and member of the orchid family, one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world. Despite the diversity of orchids, (there are approximately 25,000 – 30,000 species!) members of the genus Vanilla are the only orchids that produce edible fruit. The plants are native to tropical regions, including Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and the northern regions of South America. Today, vanilla beans are primarily cultivated in Veracruz, Mexico, Tahiti, Indonesia, and Madagascar.
Beyond being the most popular flavor, vanilla is also the second most expensive spice (after saffron) and the most labor-intensive agricultural product. This is due, in part, to their anatomy. Vanilla plants have a long climbing stem that allows them to attach to trees; their flowers are delicate and last for a single day – and only several flowers bloom at a time. The plants are self-fertile but the stamen (male) and pistil (female) are separated by a membrane, which makes typical pollination difficult; in the wild, the flowers can only be pollinated by Melipona bees or hummingbirds.
Unsurprisingly, vanilla’s tricky anatomy makes it extremely labor-intensive to cultivate. When vanilla was first brought to Europe, horticulturists struggled with how to cultivate it for centuries. Being in a different climate, there were no natural ways to pollinate the flowers, and their anatomy wasn’t well understood. In 1841, a 12-year old slave named Edmond Albius discovered a painstaking method for hand-pollinating each flower. He used a stick to gently lift the membrane of the orchid and then used his thumb to smear pollen from the stamen onto the pistil. The method was a success and the vanilla industry was born.
Today, the majority of the world’s vanilla is hand-pollinated, using techniques that are very similar to the one Albius used in 1841. However, it’s not only pollination that makes vanilla labor-intensive! After planting a three-foot vine cutting, it takes nearly 1½ to 2 years before the vine flowers. Only mature plants can produce the fruit: green pods (often called “beans”) that resemble small bananas while they’re growing. Although the pods reach their full size in four to six weeks, they can take up to nine months to mature. Once they mature and are harvested, the curing process can take place. This involves sun-drying and rolling the pods hourly for four months, after which they’re ready for sale. The entire process, from planting to sale takes approximately three years!
The Journey From Mexico to Europe
The first civilization to grow and cultivate vanilla was the Totonac people of Mexico’s east coast, during the 15th century. The Totonacs primarily used vanilla for medicinal and religious purposes, rather than flavoring, and believed it to be a gift of the gods. In 1427, the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs; they quickly discovered vanilla’s delicious flavor and began demanding the Totonacs pay taxes in the form of vanilla pods. The Aztecs used vanilla in a variety of foods, but the most popular was a ceremonial drink called “xocolatl”. It was a blend of vanilla and cacao together, similar to modern-day hot chocolate.
It’s believed that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, served Hernando Cortes xocolatl in 1519. Cortes is rumored to have enjoyed the flavors so much that he brought both vanilla and cacao back to Europe as a treasure from the New World. Europeans, like the Aztecs, quickly fell in love with the flavor of vanilla and began incorporating it into recipes. Cured vanilla beans were imported from Mexico until Albius’ pollination discovery in 1841, and were a luxury spice that only the most elite class could afford.
Vanilla’s uses and varieties
There are several varieties of vanilla, each with its own unique flavor. The variety most of us are familiar with is Bourbon vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), which is the only type of vanilla used in industrial food production. Bourbon vanilla comes from Madagascar (and to some extent, New Zealand) and has a very high content of vanillin, the natural compound that’s responsible for vanilla’s characteristic flavor. Other varieties include Indonesian (which has a smokier taste), Mexican (less vanillin and more fruity tones), and Tahitian (a softer, more subtle flavor).
As a plant, a crop, and a flavor, we think vanilla is anything but ordinary. Rediscover it with new eyes (and taste buds) by trying these delicious recipes!
Whether you need a robust and complex vanilla bean profile or a creamier French Vanilla, pure vanilla extract or WONF (vanilla extract “with other natural flavors), a vanilla powder or a certified organic vanilla flavor, Blue Pacific has a product to fit your needs. Request a sample today!
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