Orchids are prized as ornamental plants, but the only commercially important product derived from orchids is vanilla. Of the many species of vanilla, Vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico and Central America, is the source of the vanilla that is widely marketed as a flavoring and fragrance.
Often used in baked goods, vanilla is also used pharmaceutically to flavor medicines and to treat loss of appetite. Vanilla extract adds a sweet scent to candles, creams, perfumes, and lotions, and is among the most used fragrances in the world.
Vanilla flavoring comes from the plant’s long, thin seed pods, also known as vanilla beans, which contain thousands of minute seeds. Small pieces of the pods, when added to various dishes and pastries, create a unique taste. Vanilla extract and other vanilla products are also produced from vanilla beans. Vanilla extract is made by one of two processes: maceration, in which chopped vanilla beans are soaked in ethyl alcohol and water to allow the vanilla flavoring to seep into the liquid; and percolation, in which alcohol and water are continuously pumped through a container in which vanilla beans are held on racks, allowing the liquid to take on the flavor of the beans.
The seed pods are picked when their color changes from green to yellow. Virtually flavorless at this stage, the pods must first undergo a curing process in which they are placed in the sun for up to five hours and then tightly wrapped in blankets and placed in airtight boxes to sweat. This process is repeated for up to 36 days, during which time the pod undergoes fermentation and turns dark brown in color. Vanillin crystals form inside the pod, emitting the familiar vanilla fragrance. When the pods are dried, they are ready for use.
Vanilla is best known as a flavoring for desserts, puddings, and ice cream. It is also used to flavor beverages and savory entrées. Click on the tabs above for some inspiring recipes using vanilla.