Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Vanilla is neither plain nor boring

Vanilla gets a bad rap sometimes as being plain or boring. I believe this is due to the wonderful and versatile taste vanilla possess which allows it to be a base flavor in many products and recipes.

The vanilla bean is the fruit of an orchid (vanilla planifolia). Native to tropical America, obtaining pure vanilla begins with orchid blossoms, which open only one day a year.

Because this orchid has only one natural pollinator (the Melipona bee) the flower must be hand-pollinated. After pollination, pods take 6 weeks to reach full size and 8 to 9 months to mature.

The mature pods, which must be hand-picked, are green and have none of the familiar vanilla flavor or fragrance. They need curing, a 3 to 6 month process that begins with a 20-second boiling water bath followed by sun heating. Then they're wrapped in blankets and allowed to sweat. Over months of drying and sweating the beans ferment, shrinking by 400% and turning brown.

To use vanilla beans, slit lengthwise and scrape out the thousands of seeds. These seeds can be added directly to foods such as ice-cream mixtures, shortening for pastry dough, sauces, etc. Or vanilla extract can be made and added to recipes.

This seems very exotic and a tremendous amount of work to be labeled plain or boring.

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