How Vanilla Is Produced
Vanilla, native to Mexico, is a familiar spice. Its use dates back to Mesoamerican times when the Totonac people of Mexico used it in rituals. Today, it is cultivated in many places, with Madagascar and Indonesia being the top producers and responsible for over 90 percent of the vanilla used around the world today.
Vanilla grows on a vine that climbs up a tree or pole - any support can be used. In nature it will grow as high as it is allowed, but on plantations the vine is folded down to where it can be reached so that all the beans can be harvested. This also has the effect of encouraging flowering and making the plant more productive.
The vanilla planifolia flower is an orchid that produces a fruit that is a result of the pollination of the flower. Pollination, however isn’t easy because while the plant has both male and female organs, they are separated to prevent self-pollination. Natural pollination can only be carried out by a certain species of bee that is native to Mexico. Therefore, in order to grow vanilla in other place, the plants must be pollinated by hand.
Interestingly enough, this artificial pollination is still done much the same way it was back in 1841 when the method was discovered. The membrane that separates the anther and the stigma (the male and female parts of the flower) is folded back using a bamboo shoot so self-pollination can occur.
Vanilla plants are propagated by cuttings, and it takes 18 months for a new cutting to produce it’s small yellowish green orchid blooms. Each flower only blooms for a few hours. So workers must inspect the plants dutifully throughout the day in order to pollinate as many flowers as they can. A few weeks after pollination, a long green bean will start to grow - the vanilla bean. The bean is left growing on the vine for 9 month in order for it to develop it’s unique flavor. When the bean is finally picked it has no fragrance or flavor until it is dried.
There are various methods of drying vanilla beans. Whichever method is used, the enzymatic process of the bean must be stopped first or it will ferment so the bean is either blanched in hot water or heated in an oven. The beans are then dried in the sun for months and then placed in wooden boxes where they “sweat” out 80% of their moisture. This is when their distinctive flavor and aroma really starts to come out. The beans are then sorted and the essential oils are extracted from the beans. Sugars are added to the oil in order to preserve its flavor.
Imitation Vanilla is actually made from an essential oil of cloves called eugenol1. While you might not think so when you see it in your spice cabinet, producing vanilla takes a lot of care and a lot of time. In fact, the entire process from pollination to when it gets shipped to the baking isle in your store takes over a year!
1. Economic Botany at UCLA