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18 Fascinating Facts About Vanilla (and a Few Tips for Using Spent Pods)

vanilla bean next to spoon and bowl

Vanilla is an ever-present ally in the kitchen. It is deeply entrenched in our culinary tool kit as a workhorse of flavor. If you eat, you’ve probably tasted vanilla. Its intoxicating aroma and flavor is at once deliciously powerful, yet delicate, allowing it to stand alone or in harmony with other flavors. However, despite its ubiquity in the kitchen, how much do you really know about this unassuming little, brown pod that has taken permanent residence in our pantries, pastries, and stomachs? Let me help you get to know your old friend vanilla, and just how magical it really is that you ever even met in the first place.

Facts About Vanilla

  1. What we call a vanilla “bean” is actually a cured pod from the flower of a vanilla orchid, vine. The sticky paste we scrape from the inside of the pod to use in cooking, baking, and perfumery, are the seeds.
  2. Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the orchid family.
  3. The orchid family (Orchidaceae) is one of the largest families of flowering plants, second only to the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).
  4. Vanilla orchids are native to southeastern Mexico.
  5. Vanilla orchids only flower for 24 hours and must be pollinated during this time.
  6. Wild vanilla orchids can only be pollinated by a highly specialized bee called the Melipona bee.
  7. The Melipona bee is almost extinct and as a result, vanilla orchids in the wild are in danger of becoming extinct as well.
  8. If you relocate a vanilla plant or try to commercially produce vanilla, you must use hand pollination.
  9. Vanilla is the most labor-intensive crop in the world.
  10. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron.
  11. The Totonacs of Veracruz, Mexico are the first people in the world known to cultivate the vanilla bean.
  12. By the 1400’s, the Aztecs began using vanilla beans to enhance the taste of chocolate.
  13. Thomas Jefferson was the first American to bring vanilla to the United States in 1789, after his time as an American ambassador to France from 1785-1789.
  14. The United States is the largest consumer of vanilla in the world.
  15. Vanillin is the main chemical compound of the vanilla bean.
  16. A few drops of vanilla extract help to mellow the acidity of tomato-based foods.
  17. The aroma of vanilla is known to impart feelings of peace, relaxation, comfort, and contentment and are aphrodisiacal.
  18. According to science, vanilla is the World’s favorite scent.

Tips For Using Spent Vanilla Pods

The most common way to extract flavor and aroma from a vanilla pod is by splitting it in half, length-wise, scrapping out, and using the seeds. But wait, don’t discard that pod! Try some of the following tips to keep the vanilla goodness coming.

  • Add the pod directly into your sugar jar to impart flavor and aroma.
  • Add the pod to a jar of honey, pancake syrup or maple syrup and allow to sit for a few days for added depth of flavor.
  • Add the pod to sweet custard bases and poaching liquids as they warm.
  • Brew them with hot chocolate, tea or coffee.
  • Dry and grind the pod into a powder to be added to drink mixes, cocktails, baked goods, sauces or compound butters.
  • Mix the vanilla pod powder with brown or white sugar for an aromatic, exfoliating, DIY body scrub.
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