So Exactly What is Vanilla

Vanilla is a spice derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, obtained mainly from the pods of the Mexican species, known as flat-leaved vanilla or V. planifolia. The word vanilla is derived from vainilla, the diminutive of the Spanish word Vaina, which means small pod. Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people cultivated the vanilla orchid vine known as tlilxochitl by Aztecs. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because intensive labor is required to grow the vanilla beans.

However, vanilla is widely used in both home and commercial baking. Also, it is used in aromatherapy and fragrance production. Vanilla plants have a fresh and long climbing stem that attaches to the trees by aerial rootlets. It is usually used in ice-creams, shakes, perfumery, and bakery goods such as cakes, cookies, etc. Apart from food usage of vanilla, it is used to treat various health problems.

What Is Vanilla?

What Is Vanilla

Vanilla plants have a long, fleshy climbing stem like a sandalwood tree that attaches to trees by aerial rootlets so that the roots can penetrate the soil. During the blooming season, the flowers open a few at a time and they last for a single day but they can last about two months. Due to the delicate structure, flowers can only be pollinated naturally by small bees.

In areas outside the range of pollinators, flowers are artificially pollinated as soon as they open through a wooden needle. The flowers can vary in color such as creamy white, yellow, or pale green.

In four to six weeks, the fruit, a long capsule, reaches its full length of about 8 inches. On the other hand, it can take up to nine months to mature. The immature pods are harvested when they turn golden-green at the base.

Curing and Processing

Curing and Processing

Fresh vanilla fruits, also known as beans, have no flavor. The characteristic aroma is the result of the enzymatic action during curing. The tradition begins with the harvested beans to the process of daily exposure to the sun for 10 days and night sweating until they turn into a dark chocolate brown color.

The beans are then spread out on trays in a ventilated shelter until they dry for grading and packing. The process of curing and drying takes four to five months. The best quality dried seed pods are coated with tiny vanillin crystals. It provides the characteristics of a sweet and rich aroma. This coating, also known as frost, can be used as a quality criterion.

Vanillin is not present naturally on the fleshy exterior of the pod. Although it is secreted by hair-like papillae on its wall. Eventually, it diffuses through the viscous oily liquid that surrounds the seeds. The dried pods are having 2 percent vanillin. The other organic constituents are:

  • Vanillic acid (odorless)
  • Sugar
  • Oleoresin
  • Gum
  • Alcohols
  • Calcium oxalate
  • Esters
  • Aldehydes

These organic constituents contribute to the full flavor and fragrance of the vanilla. As compared to the Mexican or Bourbon product, Tahitian beans are reddish-brown and have a small amount of piperonal or heliotropin which characterizes the flavor.

What Is A Vanilla Bean?

What Is A Vanilla BeanVanilla orchids are available in more than 100 varieties. Vanilla planifolia is the only one that produces the fruit responsible for 99% of commercial vanilla. Another genus, vanilla tahitensis, is cultivated in Tahiti. Its fruit has a more rigid aroma but less flavor. As the fruit is produced at a specific time of the day through pollination, this fruit is not allowed to fully ripen as it causes the pits to split. As a result, they lose their commercial value.

After the fruit appears on the vines, it takes four to six months to manually pick the fruit or beans. Once harvested, the green beans undergo a process of treatment that lasts for another six months. Some regions produce beans with a higher content of vanillin, which is responsible for the aroma and taste. The dark brown vanilla beans are usually 7-9 inches long and weigh about 5 grams. Also, they produce around 1/2 teaspoon of seeds.




Approximate Moisture


Dark brown to black

Supple with an oily luster


Brown or Semi-Black

Dark brown to black with a few red streaks

Black but stiffer and drier


Red Fox (European)

Brown with reddish variegation

Few blemishes


Red American Quality

Brown with reddish variegation

Similar to European red but stiffer, drier, and more blemishes



Cut, short, and split fruits usually with substandard color and aroma

Figure 3: Data by 21food

Difference Between Vanilla Extract And Essence

While baking chocolate chip cookies or birthday cake of different recipes, it might call for vanilla extract. Vanilla extract is used usually in small amounts because it enhances the other flavors in the recipe. Depending on what you are baking, it can impart the subtle vanilla flavor as well.

When purchasing vanilla extract, you will see products labeled as vanilla essence or pure vanilla extract. Vanilla essence is also known as imitation vanilla flavor. Also, pure vanilla extract is more expensive than vanilla essence.

Vanilla Extract

Vanilla Extract

It is because the vanilla extract is obtained by soaking the vanilla pods in a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water. The extract gets its characteristic vanilla aroma from vanillin in vanilla beans. On the other hand, the standards for pure vanilla extract may vary from one country to another.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that the final product must have 35% of alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla pods per gallon. The vanilla extract might contain small amounts of dextrose, corn syrup, sugar, and other sweeteners.

Vanilla Essence

Vanilla Essence

Vanilla essence is usually made up of propylene glycol, ethanol, water, emulsifiers, and chemically produced colors and flavors. The difference in production makes it clear that vanilla extract is less processed than vanilla essence. The artificial color and flavor in vanilla essence undergo more processes than vanilla extract. As a result, vanilla essence is cheaper than pure vanilla extract.

Nutrition Facts

Nutrition Amount % Daily Value
Calories 288  
Cholesterol 0 mg 0%
Saturated Fat 0 mg 0%
Sodium 9 mg 0%
Potassium 148 mg 4%
Sugar 13 g 4%
Protein 0.1g 0%
Calcium   1%
Magnesium   3%

Figure 4: Data by Nutritionix

The values are per 100 grams and the percent daily value is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The values can be higher or lower depending on the calorie needs.  

Uses Of Vanilla

Flavor Enhancer

Flavor Enhancer

The combination of chocolate and vanilla dates back to the 16th century when Montezuma welcomed Cortes to Mexico with a cocoa and vanilla drink. The use of vanilla softens the bitter notes in chocolate applications such as syrups, cakes, and ice cream.

In many beverages and dairy products, vanilla is used to enhance fruit flavors. It fills the fruit aromas and removes the tart from the edges. Usually, vanilla is used as a base note such as in vanilla perfume recipes to complement the flavor profile.

Dairy Products

Dairy Products

Vanilla is the most popular flavor of ice cream. The three different categories of vanilla used determine the labeling of the ice cream.

  • Category 1: Natural Vanilla Extract. Double vanilla is commonly used and the ice cream products must be labeled vanilla ice cream.
  • Category 2: Vanilla and Vanillin Extract. It is a natural & artificial vanilla category that uses natural components to enhance the flavor. Such ice cream products must be labeled vanilla-flavored ice cream.
  • Category 3: Artificial vanilla flavors where the artificial component predominates. Such ice creams must be labeled with artificially flavored vanilla ice cream.

What Is Vanilla – Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Essence

Vanilla comes from the orchids of the genus Vanilla. It is primarily obtained from the Mexican pod species, usually flat-leaved vanilla. For decades, vanilla has been used for various purposes such as flavor enhancers in bakery products, or flavored ice-creams and shakes. Also, vanilla can be used in daily life for health purposes such as fever, intestinal gas, etc.

The curing and processing of the vanilla beans make sure that it gets their flavor in the defined period. The curing process and drying process takes four to five months in which the grading or quality of vanilla is defined. The high-quality dried seed pods are coated with tiny crystals of vanillin to give a rich aroma.