Origins of Vanilla

Vanilla is a small pod that is harvested from a particular species of orchid, the Vanilla orchid, originating from Mexico. All vanilla orchids grown in Mexico and South America can only be pollinated by the Melipona bee, and were later able to be hand pollinated and grown globally, such as the West Indies and other tropical regions around the Indian Ocean. The most common species of vanilla grown and cultivated is Vanilla planifolia, which is grown in Madagascar and is also known as Bourbon vanilla. Mexican vanilla beans are thicker and darker than Madagascar vanilla beans, and have a strong and rich flavour. Tahitian vanilla beans are almost black in colour and not as flavourful as the other two varieties, but they are used for their floral aromas in perfumes.


Above: Vanilla orchid with pods

Available Varieties

The second most expensive spice in the world, vanilla can be purchased as whole pods, paste, extract and artificial flavouring. For the best flavour payoff, it is best to buy whole pods or the paste, which contains the tiny seeds inside the pod. Whole pods can be scraped of the seeds, and then either steeped in a liquid, or placed in sugar to infuse it.  When buying whole pods, look for plump, shiny pods, with white crystallization on the outside of the pod. The white crystals are vanillin, which is the main flavour compound found in vanilla. Extract is simply made by soaking the vanilla pods in alcohol to leech out the flavour and aroma, however these extracts are very volatile, so caution must be used when adding it to hot products, or products that will be baked. The least expensive option is artificial flavouring, which utilizes the flavour compound vanillin. It can be synthetically produced from lignin, which comes from wood pulp leftover from paper production.


Above: Whole vanilla bean with seeds

Uses for Vanilla in Baking

Whether you’re looking to add a sweet aroma, or flavour a creamy dessert, vanilla is the perfect choice for a baker. Ranging from relatively cheap, to rather expensive, there are many ways that you can incorporate vanilla into any of your baking and confections. It is so complimentary to many different flavours, making it an all-purpose baking staple. I’ve included a recipe below that really highlights the rich and sweet flavour of vanilla in its purest form.

Homemade Vanilla Bean Pudding

2 2/3 cups of whole milk

½ vanilla bean

¼ cup of sugar

3 tablespoons of cornstarch

2 egg yolks

  1. Bring 2 cups of the milk to a boil with the sugar and the vanilla bean pod
  2. Combine the remaining milk, cornstarch, and the egg yolks
  3. Add to the boiling milk while stirring constantly, until it thickens
  4. Refrigerate for a couple hours before serving

For more in depth instructions and information about this recipe, go to



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