Vanilla comes from a perennial climbing orchid from South America. Its white flowers are followed by long, green pods that have been treasured for centuries. The Aztecs used it to flavor their xocolatl (bitter water), and the Spanish brought the beans to Europe, where it became all the rage.
The French tried unsuccessfully to propagate vanilla on the Islands of Bourbon (now Reunion) and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. As it turns out, the orchid had been naturally pollinated by bees and hummingbirds only found in Mexico. To make matters more difficult, the orchids themselves open for only a short time. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Vanilla orchids grown outside of Mexico are now hand-pollinated, which, combined with their complicated processing procedure, guarantees their high price.
When the green, unripe pods are picked they have little flavor or aroma. Not until they are cured and fermented do they emit the familiar fragrance. Vanillin is the flavor compound that we love, and on fine beans it can be seen on the surface as white dust. You can find three vanilla beans on the market: Madagascar beans are used mainly for extract production. Tahitian beans have a nice aroma but less flavor and are used mainly for perfumes. Mexican beans are fat and fragrant. The extract from Mexico may sometimes contain coumarin, a substance from the tonka bean that is banned in the United States.
Look for beans that are thick and tough but pliable. To use vanilla beans, pound them first before splitting them lengthwise to crush the millions of inner mini-seeds and activate as much oil as possible. Scrape the tiny black seeds into your recipe, then add the pod too, to harness as much of the oil as possible. If the recipe will not allow the pod to be added, as in cookie dough, save the spent pods in a container of sugar or rum.
Vanilla extract and beans are available at most markets. Look in better stores for better-quality extracts. Beans are expensive, but several online sources offer fair prices (Try thespicehouse.com or vanilla.com.)