Q.

How are vanilla beans grown?

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A.

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Vanilla beans are the fruit of a specific species of orchid that only grows in a few places in the world.  In order to produce a pod (bean), each orchid flower must be pollinated within 12 hours of opening.  Because only a few, rare species of animals pollinate these orchids naturally, all commercially produced vanilla must be hand pollinated.  Once the flower has been successfully pollinated, it takes up to 6 weeks for the pods to grow, and another nine months for them to mature before being hand picked.

However, vanilla beans are not ready to use straight off the vine. In order to develop their flavor they must be cured in a process taking roughly another six months.   The beans’ growth is artificially stopped via heat manipulation (usually through boiling, baking, freezing).  Then they are sweated under the sun, wrapped in heavy cloth, for about ten days.  Sweating activates enzymes in the beans which break down key compounds to release the beans’ full flavor & aroma potential. 

Once they’ve been sweated, the beans must be dried (usually by the sun) for preservation and even more concentrated flavor.  The beans will lose almost two thirds of their weight in water, but should still be slightly moist (almost like a raisin).  Finally they are “conditioned” –  the beans are stored in enclosed boxes for three or more months prior to being shipped.  This aging period makes the beans as strong and complex as they’re going to get, and ready for you to enjoy.

It’s a lot of work to make a vanilla bean, but the flavor is more complex than artificial vanilla flavoring (a wood/paper industry byproduct).  Artificial flavoring is made of vanillin, it’s like a single, strong “vanilla” power chord.  Real vanilla contains a multitude of other compounds in addition to vanillin, creating a symphony of nuanced flavor.  There’s simply no comparison.

Long, thin Bourbon vanilla beans are originally from Madagascar, while plumper & more moist Tahitian vanilla beans were first grown on the island of Tahiti.  Other varieties, like Mexican vanilla beans, are also available, though significantly less common.




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