Vanilla can be found in the ingredients list of recipe books for decades. Your recipe books, your mother’s and your grandmother’s all, without a doubt, call for vanilla. Why? Because vanilla is the heart of every recipe. It makes creamy desserts like ice cream and custard beautiful and luxurious, and transforms everyday slices and biscuits into baking staples that will be requested by family for years to come. Vanilla is also a flavour enhancer and pairs wonderfully with chocolate and other spices.
Even though you probably have a few bottles of Queen Vanilla Extract or Vanilla Bean Paste in your pantry, you may not know where it actually comes from. In this article we take a look at the fascinating history of vanilla and how it is grown and produced, from orchid to bean to bottle. We’ll also give you top tips on how to store your vanilla to ensure you always have a teaspoon at the ready for your next baked treat.
History of Vanilla
The history of vanilla extends back more than two thousand years ago to the Totonac Indians of the East Coast of Mexico. They were the founders and keepers of this secret spice until the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs in the 15th century. The Totonacs had commonly used ground vanilla beans to flavour “Chocolatl”, a drink made from water, ground roasted cocoa beans and honey.
In 1519, The Aztec emperor Montezuma greeted Spanish Conquistador Cortez in Mexico with a golden cup of Chocolatl. Cortez was astounded by the flavour of vanilla and returned to Spain with cacao beans and vanilla beans. The drink was an instant success and became extremely popular through Europe.
Eighty years later, Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, suggested vanilla beans could be used on their own to flavour desserts. As a result, vanilla become a prized flavour in custards, puddings and cakes with Queen Elizabeth and the European upper class, and in time, Queen Victoria, who inspired our name, Queen.
In the years that followed, vanilla vines were planted and grown successfully in other parts of the world with similar climatic conditions to Mexico. For reasons unknown at the time, the flowers that bloomed on the vines failed to produce pods and Mexico remained the only supplier of vanilla beans. In 1836, Belgian Botanist Charles Morren discovered that vanilla flowers could not be pollinated without assistance. He identified that a bee, the Melipone bee, native to Mexico, was responsible for pollinating the flowers that went on to grow vanilla pods. Without the cross pollination skills of this bee, vanilla vines in other countries could not grow vanilla pods at all.
Finally, in 1841, a 12-year-old girl on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean figured out how to hand-pollinate the vanilla flowers with a long, thin stick made from bamboo. The simple technique lead to vanilla beans being grown in Madagascar, India, Tahiti, Comoros, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. It also paved the way for Madagascar to become the world’s largest producer of vanilla, with Reunion being the most famous.
From Orchid to Bean
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron), but when you consider the overwhelming duration of time and labour that is required to grow, harvest and cure vanilla, it clearly deserves the high value it’s given.
The beautifully fragrant, brown vanilla beans that we love start out as a flower on an orchid, and following tedious hand-pollination, grow into a flavourless green pod that must go through a long curing process to develop the characteristic vanilla flavour and aroma. From the bloom of the flower to the final step of grading is a 19-month process that must be done manually by vanilla growers. Here’s how Queen vanilla beans are grown:
Growing Vanilla Beans
Vanilla thrives in hot, humid, tropical climates with frequent rainfall well scattered throughout most of the year. A vanilla vine can grow up to 20 meters in height but are maintained to a workable height of approximately 1.5 meters for hand harvesting. The vines climb up a solid support, usually a tree that also provides adequate shade.
On average, a vanilla vine has a typical life span of about twelve years. It takes three to four years for the vanilla vine to reach fruit bearing stage, and then produces well for about seven to eight years.
As with any grown produce, the size of a vanilla crop each year depends on the weather. If a cyclone or drought strikes during growing season, the crop and quality of vanilla beans may be significantly reduced.
When a vanilla flower opens, growers have just 12 hours to hand-pollinate the flower for a vanilla pod to be produced. Luckily, the flowers do not all open on the same day, but over a period of four months. Our Queen Vanilla growers check the vines each day during this period, looking for flower buds that are about to bloom. They carry small red ribbons with them, tying a ribbon around the stem of flowers that will be ready for pollination the next day. This method ensures every flower can be found again the next day and one day, grow into a vanilla bean.
Each pollinated flower produces one green pod that takes six to nine months to grow and mature to approximately 18-20cm long. If a flower is missed and not hand-pollinated, a pod will not be produced and it will take 18 months until the next season of vanilla flowers are ready for pollination.
Harvesting and Curing Vanilla Beans
The green vanilla pods are harvested as they begin to turn yellow at their tip, indicating they are ripening, about nine months after pollination. Each pod contains thousands of tiny black seeds. As the flowers have all been pollinated at different times, the pods will be ready to be picked at different times, meaning the vines must be checked daily to identify the beans perfect for picking. It is essential to pick the pods at the correct stage – too early gives an inferior product, too late results in the bean splitting during curing. It is not until the last few weeks of growth that the pre-cursors to the most important flavouring components, that make vanilla taste like vanilla, develop.
After the beans are harvested, the multi-step curing process to develop the flavour of the beans begins. The stages of curing are:
Blanching – The beans are blanched in hot water to stop their growth and activate the enzymes responsible for the development of vanilla aroma.
Sweating – Still green, the beans are then tipped into large containers and covered with cloth or wool to keep them warm as they start to ‘sweat.’ At the end of this process, usually 7-10 days, the beans have turned brown and begin the long process of developing their characteristic vanilla flavour and aroma.
Drying – Now brown but retaining most of their moisture, it is time for the beans to dry out to intensify their flavour and aroma. The beans are laid out in the sun by hand, one-by-one, and then alternated with periods of shade to reduce their water content to 20-25%. Late in the afternoon they are gathered and wrapped up before being laid out in the sun again the next day. This process is repeated day after day for about two weeks. It is a very long process but worth the effort for the complex flavours and aromas that take so much time to develop. If the weather decides to turn and rain for days on end, this process takes even longer.
Conditioning – Once dried, the beans are packed into boxes and stored for several months to allow conditioning to occur. During this process, a range of changes occur to the flavour of the beans that creates the complex, well balanced flavour and aroma profile of the vanilla you enjoy at home.
Sorting and Classification – The final step in the curing process is grading where the vanilla beans are manually sorted according to their length, shape, colour and water content. The finest graded beans are bundled and packed in wax paper-lined containers and shipped to Queen.
Overall, the total curing process typically takes five to seven months or even more.
Sustainable and Fair Vanilla
Queen is committed to the fair, ethical and sustainable sourcing of Vanilla. Our long history in Vanilla production means we have seen first hand the impact of natural weather events on this precious crop and the lives of the families that grow it. Through our Vanilla programs that educate, support and empower Vanilla farmers, you can be assured that when you purchase Queen Vanilla, you are helping thousands of growers around the world and making vanilla production more sustainable for the future. Join us on our Vanilla journey. Read more about our Vava’u Tonga Vanilla Program.
Vanilla Varieties and Flavour Profiles
Pure vanilla is an extremely complex spice, containing approximately 250 to 500 different flavour and fragrance components. The major flavour component is vanillin, which sometimes appears as white crystals on high quality, well-aged beans.
There are nearly 150 species of vanilla in the orchid family, but only two are commonly grown and used. These are Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Tahitensis. Roughly 90% of all cultivated vanilla is Vanilla Planifolia and about 10% Vanilla Tahitensis. Vanilla Planifolia beans are long and slender, rich in taste and smell, have thick, oily skin, an abundance of tiny seeds and a strong vanilla aroma. Vanilla Tahitensis are darker, thicker, shorter and contain more water and oil than Vanilla Planifolia types and have more of a slight cherry like vanilla profile.
Vanilla beans vary in flavour and aroma according to their growing location, climate and how the pods are cured. Read more about the taste and aroma of vanilla beans from Madagascar, Vava’u Tonga, Tahiti, Mexico, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea on the Queen blog Single Origin Vanilla, why is it so special.
Whole Vanilla Beans
The purest form of vanilla, Queen Pure Vanilla Beans are the result of the laborious growing, harvesting and curing process. Once a vanilla bean is ready for consumption, it is brown, fragrant, glossy and supple. Slice open a vanilla bean to find countless tiny black vanilla seeds and use whole to infuse creams and poaching liquids. If you use the seeds without the bean, be sure to save it for infusing liquids later or to make vanilla sugar. Watch our video tutorial for How to Split a Vanilla Bean.
Pure Vanilla Extract
Once the vanilla beans arrive at Queen, our master brewers create extractions to capture the essence of the carefully grown and cured vanilla beans. We rely on their honed skill and excellent noses and taste buds to create pure vanilla extracts that capture all those complex flavours from the bean that are perfectly well-rounded for baking. The craft of Queen vanilla extraction has been refined and passed down through generations of master brewers for 120 years. The Queen vanilla taste that you grew up with is a combination of the very best beans, delicate extraction techniques and our signature blend. Water and alcohol are used to gently extract the flavour components over the course of many months. The finished extract is then filtered and bottled in our iconic little bottles.
Vanilla Bean Paste
Queen created vanilla bean paste in 2004 for chefs who were looking for an easy alternative to using whole vanilla beans. Vanilla in paste form was the perfect solution. One teaspoon of Queen Vanilla Bean Paste has the seed content and flavour of a whole vanilla bean in a convenient jar or squeeze tube, without the hassle of splitting and scraping the seeds from a vanilla bean. As the strength of vanilla beans can vary, you can rest assured knowing you will get consistent, intense vanilla flavour from one teaspoon of Queen vanilla bean paste.
Storing Vanilla Products
Whole vanilla beans should be kept in an airtight container and stored at room temperature. Pure vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste should be tightly closed and also stored at room temperature, away from direct sunlight and heat. Vanilla should never be refrigerated or frozen as condensation may occur, which can lead to mold. Properly stored vanilla can be kept and used for up to for 4 years and 6 months.
Now onto delicious recipes!
If you’ve read this far, well done and thanks for sticking around! As you now know, vanilla has a long, rich history and complex growing conditions and processes. But once the vanilla beans arrive at Queen and the indulgent aroma wafts through the entire factory, we know it’s all worth it. Every day in the 21-month cycle from orchid to bean to bottle is for your baking (and eating!) pleasure. Hungry yet? Visit our Vanilla Recipe Collection for plenty of delicious ways to bake with vanilla.