Vanilla Planifolia is the variety of vanilla plant that has fueled the world’s desire for our favorite flavor and fragrance. It grows naturally in the tropical areas of Mexico, Central America and northern South America as well as in the Caribbean.
Until the twentieth century, all the vanilla that came into the United States came from Mexico. Because Mexico is the birthplace of vanilla, we consumers assume that it must sell the best extracts. In fact, it doesn’t! Nearly all of the extracts made and sold in Mexico or in Mexican markets in the US are imitation. Pay no attention to the labels as label laws are not enforced in Mexico. It’s imitation vanilla with potentially dangerous ingredients. If you want pure Mexican vanilla extract, buy it in the U.S. from reputable dealers.
So many vanilla extracts, so many prices.
How are they different?
How are they made?
How do you know if they are pure?
There are rules governing vanilla extract production and labeling. Unfortunately, not every company follows the rules. So choosing a great vanilla extract just by looking at the bottles makes this a little tricky. Here are some guidelines to help you in your quest for the best.
Varieties of Vanilla
There are at least 150 varieties of vanilla plants growing around the world, but only two species are used commercially. The one we most often buy is called Bourbon or Madagascar vanilla extract. Pure Mexican vanilla extract is sometimes available in specialty food stores. Bourbon, Madagascar and Mexican are all from the same species of beans, just different names or grown in different regions.
Tahitian extract comes from a different species of vanilla and has a distinctively different flavor. You’ll find articles about these different extracts in our vanilla directory. You can also buy all these varieties in our shop.
How Is Vanilla Extract Made?
Vanilla extract is made by percolating or macerating chopped vanilla beans with ethyl alcohol and water in large steel containers. The process is usually kept as cool as possible to keep flavor loss to a minimum, though some manufacturers believe that there must be heat for the best extraction. Most companies use a consistent blend of beans, sometimes from several regions, sometimes just from one place such as Mexico or Madagascar.
(adapted from Gerard Vives)
Sugar, Coffee, Chocolate Vanilla: the backbone of the tropical foods economy. Four products that most of us use daily. But, do you know where your morning coffee is grown, or the conditions under which it’s grown? What about that chocolate bar you had yesterday afternoon? Who processed the sugar you sprinkled over your cereal? Is the vanilla in your ice cream natural or synthetic?
The truth is, few of us know much about where these food staples are grown, or whether the people who grow them earn enough to feed their families, have schooling available for their children, or have access to basic medical care.
Consider this: Coffee and chocolate traditionally grew in the
Just as “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out,” was a catch phrase of the 1960s pop subculture,
“Calm Down, Feel Good, Lose Weight,” seems to be nearly everyone’s mantra in the first years of the new millennium. For many of us, the hectic pace of modern life leaves us anxious and exhausted, and all too often, too tired and cranky to take time for the exercise that might lift our spirits. While there is no elixir that will magically cure all that ails us, nor a perfect panacea for our harried lives, there is some useful help available as close as our kitchen cupboards.
Before the creation of antibiotics and other powerful medicines, we depended on herbs and homemade or purchased potions, as well as prayer and incantation to heal our bodies and spirits. As scientists now have the technology to study traditional folk remedies, they have found that many actually have great curative benefits. Ethnobotanists are collecting valuable information from the healers of native cultures before their knowledge of the fauna and flora of their homeland is lost or the plants and animals lost to development. This groundswell of interest in a more natural way to heal ourselves has come about, in part, as we realize that modern medicines often have side effects or lose their potency through misuse. Although vanilla hasn’t received as much attention as many of the common popular herbs such as lavender, mint or chamomile, it has been used as a medicine for hundreds of years and its popularity is growing as more evidence becomes available about its power to heal and soothe.
In early times, the Land of the Resplendent Moon, was the kingdom of Totonocopan, ruled by the Totonacas. The palm-studded sands, verdant valleys, and shimmering hills and sierra in what is now known as Vera Cruz, were overseen from several locations. One was Papantla, place of the papan birds. Another was El Tajin, the thunder bolt, an ancient Huaxtecan city built in honor of the deity, Hurakan, god of the storms. It was here in this dense, tropical rainforest that vanilla was first cultivated and cured. It was here that the fragrance from the vanilla was so exquisite, that Papantla later became known as, The City That Perfumed the World.
There was a time, however, before the reign of Tenitzli III, when there was no vanilla. In this city famous for its artists and sculptors, Tenitzli and his wife were blessed with a daughter so incredibly beautiful that they couldn’t bear the thought of giving her away in marriage to a mere mortal. They dedicated her life as a pious offering to the cult of Tonoacayohua, the goddess of crops and subsistence, a powerful goddess who affected their very life and survival. Their daughter, Princess Tzacopontziza (Morning Star), devoted her time at the temple, bringing offerings of foods and flowers to the goddess.
Vanilla beans – those pricey, fragrant, dried seedpods that offer no easy clue about how to use them – are native to tropical America. There are over 150 varieties of vanilla orchids (there are 27 varieties in South Florida alone), but only two species are used commercially to flavor and fragrance foods and beverages– Bourbon and Tahitian.
Bourbon vanilla beans
Bourbon vanilla beans are botanically known as Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrans and originally came from the Gulf Coast of Mexico. When grown in Mexico they’re called Mexican beans. On the other hand, beans from the same plant stock are called Bourbon vanilla beans if they grow in Madagascar, Indonesia, and many other regions. The big exception is the beans from Tahiti. Even though Tahitian vanilla is now considered its own species, the original plant stock also came from Mexico.
Much more than just an ingredient in baked goods, vanilla is a magical flavoring that can do wonders for most foods and beverages. It’s also very useful in calming our minds and bodies and helping us to feel good. Here are some thoughts and suggestions for making use of vanilla’s magic. For instance, did you know that vanilla is…
an antacid? Add a few drops to pineapple, fruit salads, or sauces containing citrus to soften the sharpness and give it extra sweetening. Put a little vanilla in tomato sauces to neutralize the acidity.
a lifter and enhancer? Add vanilla to give new “life” to flavorless seasonal fruits or other foods that need a flavor boost. Did you know that chocolate by itself tastes “flat” which is why it usually contains vanilla?
Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the orchid family, the largest family of flowering plants in the world. It’s a tropical orchid, and there are more than 150 varieties of vanilla, though only two types – Bourbon and Tahitian — are used commercially.
Vanilla grows within the 20-degree band either side of the Equator and is native to the Americas. The vanilla you know best, Vanilla planifolia (also known as fragrans), traditionally grew wild on the Atlantic Gulf side of Mexico from Tampico around to the northeast tip of South America, and from Colima, Mexico to Ecuador on the Pacific side. It also grew throughout the Caribbean.
The Olmeca people on the Gulf Coast of Mexico were perhaps the first to use vanilla as a flavoring in beverages. Before that, vanilla was used as a fragrance in temples and the flowers were placed inside of amulets to protect the wearer from the evil eye.