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Vanilla as an ingredient is a wondrous thing, ambrosial, floral, warm, and sophisticated.
“It’s an essential ingredient, adding not just flavor, but also body and soul into a dish,” says Francis Ang, a San Francisco-based pastry chef.
It is integral to so many foods, adding familiarity to everything from ice cream to sugar cookies.
it’s a luxury good in its own right, the result of a wildly time and labor-intensive harvest that must be done almost entirely by hand.
Vanilla pods are the fruit of a stunning flower known as the vanilla orchid, which is the only orchid to bear edible fruit.
The most commonly used vanilla orchid for culinary purposes is vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico, and grown across the Caribbean, northern South America, Central America, and Madagascar.
Madagascar accounts for roughly 80 percent of the world’s supply today, so that’s probably the “traditional” flavor you’re most used to.
Mexican vanilla is a little bolder and slightly smoky,
Tahitian vanilla is more delicate and floral.
Vanilla harvesting is a time and labor-intensive endeavor that defies automation. It’s an incredibly long process that can’t be rushed.
The vanilla orchids only open one day a year, and they must be hand-pollinated because this particular flower has only one natural pollinator the Melipona bee.
It takes the pods another eight to nine months to mature, and then they must be hand-picked while green. The pods must be cured, then wrapped in little blankets and dried, a three-to-six-month process during which they ferment and shrink down by 400 percent.
Vanilla extract is made by macerating chopped vanilla bean pods in alcohol, which extracts the flavors and fragrances from the bean.
Look for pure vanilla extract, which must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and 35 percent alcohol. Beans and extract are interchangeable in most recipes, one whole vanilla bean is equivalent to one tablespoon of extract.
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