There isn’t a pastry chef, baker, or home cook that could imagine a world without the intoxicating flavor and aroma of vanilla. Vanilla is one of the most complex spices in existence and equally complicated to cultivate, making it not only the most popular spice in the world, but the second most expensive spice after saffron.
Vanilla beans are the product of the world’s only fruit-producing orchid, Vanilla Planifolia.
Once introduced to Europe by Hernán Cortés in 1519, the spice quickly found its way into cakes and ice cream, perfumes and medicines, and was valued for its intoxicating flavor and aroma. Europeans continued to discover vanillas potential and it became a critical ingredient as they perfected their chocolate candy making.
Once it became obvious that a vanilla bean could elevate the simplest cake or cookie, vanilla extract was on a fast track for development.
Generally, the most sought-after vanilla is Bourbon vanilla. But this has nothing to do with alcohol. The name Bourbon is derived from the French-occupied island of Bourbon in Madagascar.
To Extract or Paste? That is the Question
Vanilla is one of the most important flavors in any baker’s kitchen, so you’ll always find a bottle of vanilla extract in every pantry. Vanilla extract is an easy ingredient to use, but it isn’t the only option for adding vanilla flavor to your baked goods. You can use real vanilla beans or opt for vanilla bean paste, which is becoming much more widely available and adds a new dimension of flavor and visual appeal.
Vanilla Bean Paste, or Vanilla Paste, is a thick, syrupy liquid that has vanilla bean seeds suspended in it. Since Vanilla Paste it is made with glucose, not with alcohol, vanilla bean paste is much thicker and more “paste-like” than vanilla extract.
Vanilla Extract is an alcohol solution made by macerating vanilla beans until their flavor is drawn out. Unlike the syrup in the paste, the alcohol in vanilla extract will evaporate during baking and will leave all the vanilla flavor behind.
Some people prefer extract to paste, while others prefer paste to extract. Both typically have excellent vanilla flavors, especially if you are starting with Nomad Extract and Paste. They can both be used in most recipes, but Vanilla Paste makes a remarkable addition to baking as thousands of little black specks disperse into your ice cream, custard, or Crème Brule.
Think of Vanilla paste the ‘in-betweener’ of extract and the vanilla pod itself.
Vanilla Paste is more expensive than extract but is less expensive than whole beans and much less labor intensive.
To sum up the debate, this is what we suggest – you must have both in your arsenal!
When you want those fancy black specks to show up in your desserts and taste a decadent vanilla flavor, go for vanilla bean paste. If you’re making something simple like chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, or anything where the specks won’t be shown off, skip the more expensive paste and add a splash of vanilla extract instead.
As far as conversion goes, 1 Tablespoon of Nomad Vanilla Extract equals 1 teaspoon of Nomad Vanilla Paste.
A Brief History of Vanilla
The Olmeca people on the Gulf Coast of Mexico were perhaps the first to use vanilla as a flavoring in beverages. Before that, vanilla was used as a fragrance in temples and the flowers were placed inside of amulets to protect the wearer from the evil eye.
The first people to cultivate vanilla were the Totonic people of Mexico. Their legend says that a goddess princess fled with her forbidden mortal lover to the forest. They were hunted down and killed. When their blood touched the earth, vanilla sprang up from the ground. The Aztecs also developed a taste for vanilla. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1519 brought the fragrant flower, and its companion, cacao to Europe.
Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing vanilla to the United States in the late 1700’s. While serving as Ambassador to France, he learned the use of vanilla beans, and when he returned to the United States, brought vanilla beans with him. That’s Pretty Sweet!
Until the late 19th century, Mexico had the monopoly on growing vanilla, but now Madagascar grows up to 80% of the world’s crop. Vanilla plantations can now be found in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Uganda, Kenya, China, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands.
But Why So Expensive?
Vanilla is a labor-intensive and time-consuming agricultural crop, which is one reason why it’s so expensive. And here’s why…
Vanilla vines take three to four years to fully mature, and their blossoms only flower for one day of the year. For the plants to produce their succulent beans, they must be pollinated that day, or all bets are off.
In most places where vanilla is grown today, vanilla isn’t a native plant, and there aren’t birds or bees capable of pollinating the flowers. Thanks to a discovery made by 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius in the 19th century, this process can now be replicated by hand.
Six to nine months after pollinating the vanilla flowers by hand, the flowers produce green and nearly odorless beans that are ready to be individually picked. Once picked, the beans must undergo a carefully monitored process designed to develop the vanilla’s natural flavors and signature aromas.
When the beans are harvested, they must be dried entirely by sun until they have shrunk to 20% of their original size. After this process is complete, the beans are sorted for size and quality. Then they will rest for a month or two to finish developing their full flavor and fragrance. By the time they are shipped around the world, their aroma is quite extraordinary!
The United States is the world’s largest consumer of vanilla, followed by Europe.
Health Benefits of Vanilla
The use of vanilla dates back to ancient times when the Aztec people of Central America flavored chocolate drinks with the aromatic beans and believed them to have an aphrodisiac quality.
These days, they are sought after for different reasons, with some touting them as having anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that can be used in acne treatment, as well as antioxidants to help reverse skin damage and aging. Vanilla has also even been said to be helpful in relieving nausea, anxiety and even irregular menstrual cycles.
We will leave that up to the experts. For us, Vanilla is just so heavenly…