Can you imagine a day without vanilla?
Perhaps many of you feel that it really wouldn’t be a big deal, that it would be okay, and you would find a replacement flavor … maybe caramel, chocolate, or strawberry. In the end, life itself would go on. But, what if I told you that these replacement flavors also wouldn’t taste the same without vanilla? Are you worried now? I mean, can you imagine a chocolate chip cookie or crème brûlée without vanilla… What would à la mode become? There seems to be a lack of true appreciation for this beloved flavor. Let’s see if I can change that…
What if I asked you what it takes to make a vanilla extract? Would you be able to answer that? Or, are you just thinking of that magical little bottle of extract that you remember your mom or grandma using for baking? I’d venture to guess that they were using imitation vanilla extract, and maybe they still do today. Folks, that doesn’t count! I’m talking about the real deal…pure vanilla extract from you got it, none other than vanilla beans themselves.
From Flower to Flavor
When I first started working in vanilla, I gathered books, articles, and old collateral that my predecessor developed. My mind was overflowing with excitement and wonder. Without giving you a full-blown history lesson (history was never my favorite subject), what if I told you that vanilla beans can only be grown in between the tropics, an area roughly 23° North and South of the Equator? Or, that there’s only a small window of opportunity to pollinate the blossoms? And, those blossoms need to be hand pollinated, at that. Are you starting to appreciate this flavor a little bit more?
But wait, there’s more. If we fast forward through the cropping cycle, you’ll learn that the beans are hand pollinated in November/December. Beans mature on the vine by August, they’re cured, sold and eventually shipped to our manufacturing location by the following March, and may not be extracted for flavor creation for an additional 2-3 months. I bet I lost you, didn’t I? Essentially, it took nearly 16 months from the time the vanilla orchid was pollinated to the time that we can physically touch, smell, grind and extract those beans! 16 months!
Once at our manufacturing facility, the beans transform from a solid bean mass into a rich, complex vanilla extract. An extract that is full of over 250 compounds and depending on the ratio of those compounds, one may experience more rummy, buttery, creamy, bourbon-ey, or dried fruit notes. When working on the bench, Flavorists not only rely on vanilla extract to impart that beautiful vanilla flavor, but they may also use it to enhance sweetness, mask protein or high-intensity sweetener off-notes, or round out the characterizing flavor profiles of chocolates, fruits, or coffee, just to name a few. It’s essential for enhancing the overall flavor experience.
A New View on Vanilla
You see, without vanilla, our world would not be the same. It would be bland, a little less sweet and ‘just plain’ boring. These are the same words, bland and boring, that many of you use to describe vanilla today. I hope the next time you think about vanilla, that it brings joy, laughter, maybe a bit of mystery or even an element of sexiness. Yes, I went there. Did it embarrass you? Let’s celebrate this beloved icon and not go one day without it.