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All About Vanilla

Vanilla is perhaps the most indispensible flavoring in any kitchen! Learn how vanilla beans are grown and pollinated and how to choose and store vanilla beans.Remarkably aromatic, delightfully sensuous. Frontier invites you to steep yourself in the history, legend, science and culinary enchantment this exotic spice has inspired since its discovery.

What is vanilla?

Vanilla comes from the long, greenish-yellow seedpods of a fragrant tropical vanilla orchid. Only two species — Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis (Tahitian vanilla) — are cultivated for commercial use as a flavoring or fragrance. Vanilla is grown commercially in Madagascar, Mexico, Indonesia, and Tahiti.

Where did it originate?

Vanilla was first cultivated by the Totonec people of Mexico. In the 15th century the Aztecs conquered the Totonec and required tribute in the form of vanilla beans. Later, the Spanish Conquistadors were indoctrinated into the joys of vanilla when they conquered the Aztecs. And they, in turn, introduced vanilla to Europe.

How is it grown?

Vanilla orchids are grown as a vine and hand-pollinated. Seven to eight months after pollination, the beans are harvested by hand and undergo a complicated curing process. The full cultivation story is truly remarkable, if you’ve got a minute.

The legend of Princess Xanat

According to Totonac mythology, the vanilla orchid was born when a princess, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the strong vine and delicate orchid grew.

How to choose and store good vanilla beans

Premium quality vanilla beans have a rich, full aroma and are oily to the touch. They should be pliable enough to bend without breaking, and they should be dark brown (almost black).

Vanilla beans will keep indefinitely if stored properly in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, or if they are vacuum-packed. While it's important to keep vanilla beans cool to avoid mildew, they should not be refrigerated or frozen, as this causes them to harden and lose flavor.

If you're using high-quality Bourbon beans, you may notice after time that they have developed crystals (these often resemble white fur), an indicator that the beans are high in natural vanillin and of good quality. This is a natural process and a delicious one, at that. Enjoy the crystals — they're full of flavor!

If your vanilla beans have dried out, simply add them to warm liquid to draw out the flavor. A dry bean pod added to a mug of hot chocolate or a cup of hot tea results in a delicious experience!

Types of Vanilla

There are different species of vanilla plant. Learn about the properties of the two main vanilla species.

Vanilla planifolia is the most common species of vanilla. It's grown in India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Guatemala. It's also the species used for "Bourbon" vanilla from the islands of Madagascar, Reunion, and the Comoros.

This species of vanilla has a strong, rich, creamy, sweet, and almost hay-like aroma. The beans are thick skinned and longer than the Tahitian vanilla bean. They also contain more seeds than Tahitian vanilla beans..

Tahitian vanilla beans, Vanilla tahitensis, are grown in the South Pacific. These beans are shorter and plumper than Vanilla planifolia beans and the have a higher water and oil content, too. Their strong, fruity, floral aroma is especially prized by European gourmet cooks.

Frontier offers a wide selection of high quality vanilla beans, as well as vanilla powder, extracts and flavors.

Vanilla You Don’t Want to Use

In an effort to cut costs, low-quality products are sold as vanilla. Learn why coumarin-adulterated vanilla, imitation vanilla, and vanilla flavor are inferior to pure vanilla extract.

Coumarin-Adulterated Vanilla

Avoid vanilla that has been adulterated with coumarin. Coumarin, derived from the tonka bean, is inexpensive and shares some constituents with vanilla. But while it adds a strong vanilla-like aroma, it contributes little flavor to the product. It's often added to "bargain" vanillas from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Imitation Vanilla

Pure vanilla is expensive. In order to make the product more affordable, imitation vanilla was developed. Imitation vanilla is made from artificial flavorings, the two most common sources of which are lignin vanillin, a by-product of the paper industry that is chemically treated to taste like vanilla, and ethyl vanillin, a coal-tar derivative.

Vanilla Flavor (WONF)

This flavor descriptor indicates that the product is made With Other Natural Flavors and means that the product contains other flavor ingredients, usually essential oils and botanical extracts. Any of these blended flavors won't, of course, have the taste profile of real vanilla and synthetic chemical carriers can sometimes be introduced. But even if the additions are natural, at best you have an inferior vanilla that is "boosted" with less expensive components.

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