Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid plant, which grows in the form of a bean pod. Vanilla orchids are grown in tropic climates. The dark brown vanilla bean is usually 7 to 9 inches long, weighs about 5 grams, and yields about 1/2 teaspoon of seeds. One-quarter teaspoon should be enough to flavor a recipe for 4 to 5 people. Vanilla is used not only in pastries, desserts, and baked goods, but is also excellent with seafoods. It is a popular ingredient of coffees, perfumes, cigars and pipe tobaccos.
Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla tahitensis (less flavorful), Vanilla fragrans
Common and Other Names:
Vanillin, vainilla meaning little sheath, vanille, vaniglia, wanila, vanilka, vanilje, vanilja, vanil, vanillia, paneli, vanile, vanilya
Dried vanilla bean pods and bottled vanilla extract are available year-round in the spice section of supermarkets. Vanilla beans may be kept locked up (like saffron) in some markets because of their high value. If you don't see any on the shelf, ask the store manager.
For vanilla beans, choose plump beans with a thin skin to get the most seeds possible. Pods should be dark brown, almost black in color, and pliable enough to wrap around your finger without breaking. For vanilla extract, look for a high alcohol content in unadulterated pure vanilla extract. Synthetics usually have little or no alcohol. FDA standards require vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and 35 percent alcohol.
Whole, dried bean pods, pure vanilla extract, vanilla powder, and vanilla flavoring. Vanilla flavoring is usually a combination of imitation vanilla (made of artificial flavors) and pure vanilla extract.
Beans should be kept in a tightly-closed container in a refrigerated area where they should last up to six months. Pure vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf-life, and actually improves with age. Vanilla powder is also available, which should also be kept tightly-sealed, in a cool, dry place away from sun and heat. Whole beans that have been used in sauces or other liquids can be rinsed, thoroughly dried, and stored for reuse.
Miscellaneous Vanilla Information:
Beware: Adulterated vanilla extract still makes its way into the US, since there is no testing done by customs inspectors and the addition of coumarin flavoring agent is not illegal in Mexico. Imitation vanilla is made from artificial flavorings, most of which come from wood byproducts which often contain chemicals.