Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Here are some questions (Q) and answers (A) regarding vanilla types, vanilla beans, vanilla extracts, vanilla history, the vanilla plant and its flower, and vanilla in general. The answers are short but you can find more details on our vanilla web pages. Nevertheless, if you still have questions feel free to ask them. Your question may end up on this FAQ page.
Q. What is vanilla? A. Vanilla comes from a plant, the vanilla plant, or more precisely vanilla planifolia. The vanilla plant comes from the family of orchids. Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the orchid family, which is the largest family of flowering plants in the world, with over 35,000 species worldwide.
Q. Why is vanilla so expensive? A. Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world. It takes between 18 months and three years from planting a cutting of the orchid vine until the plant produces orchids. The orchids bloom and die within a few hours unless they are pollinated by hand. The vanilla beans (which are actually seed-pods) must stay on the vine for nine months before being harvested. The vanilla beans then go through a curing, drying, and resting process for several months. Each vanilla bean is handled hundreds of times before it's ready to use!
Q. Where does vanilla come from? A. Originally vanilla came from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It's a fruit of the Americas. Now it grows in tropical countries all over the world.
Q. Where is most of the world's vanilla grown? A. Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla worldwide, followed by Indonesia. Reunion and the Comoro Islands were, until recently, big producers as well. Vanilla plants are also grown in many other tropical countries, such as Papua, New Guinea, India, Fiji, Tonga, China, and Uganda. Tahiti, which has been the primary source of Tahitian vanilla, now produces only a small quantity of Tahitian vanilla because most farmers have switched to Bourbon vanilla.
Q. What are the equivalents for a vanilla bean versus vanilla extract? A. It's a little tricky determining the equivalent of a vanilla bean to vanilla extract. The bean offers a fuller flavor but the extract is a little stronger. In general, 1/2 vanilla bean is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Q. Why is vanilla so unique? A. Vanilla has over 250 organic components that comprise its distinctive flavor and fragrance.
Q. Why does vanilla extract contain so much alcohol? A. Alcohol is the most efficient agent for extracting the flavor from the beans. Although most of the alcohol burns off in cooked foods, the flavor remains intact as the alcohol is simply the carrier for the flavor.
Q. Are there non-alcoholic vanilla extracts? A. Yes. There are non-alcoholic vanilla extracts, usually called Pure Natural Vanilla. They are made on a glycerin base and contain as much vanilla as extracts. They provide a reasonable non-alcoholic solution for flavoring foods and beverages.
Q. Does vanilla extract contain sugar? If so, how much? A. Vanilla is naturally sweet and really doesn't need sugar. However, when it was made at the apothecary shops it was more like a tincture, and contained a lot of sugar. Some companies use a lot of sugar in their vanilla extracts while others don't use any sugar.
Q: How long will gourmet vanilla beans remain fresh? A: Stored properly, vanilla gourmet beans should remain moist and easy to work with for at least a year, many times quite a bit longer. If the beans do dry out a bit, you can place a half of a small potato in a jar with them to soften them for use. You can also soften them a bit by placing them in some warm water or milk just before use. Do not refrigerate the beans as this can damage the extract and cause the beans to crystallize or dry.
Q: How long does vanilla extract stay fresh? A: Vanilla extract is actually like fine red wine, it gets better with age! So you can keep vanilla extract essentially indefinitely. Keep it in a cool, dry, relatively dark place; like any other flavor product, the flavor will degrade if exposed to extreme or variant temperatures, moisture or direct sunlight. Remember pure vanilla extract is 35% alcohol, so treat it as you would a fine liqueur!
Q. My vanilla beans have gotten very dry. Are they any good? A. Yes. When the beans are soaked in liquid they will plump up again. For instance, if you're making custard, warm them in the milk or cream and they will work fine. Another option is to grind the beans and use the ground beans to flavor sugar, coffee, tea, or a dessert. You can also put dried beans in the sugar jar and they will absorb some of the moisture of the sugar and regain some of their moisture.