Vanilla beans are pleasantly fragrant fruit pods obtained from the tropical climbing orchid, V. planifolia. Mayans were the first people to use them in chocolate drinks as a flavoring agent centuries before the Spanish first set their foot in Mexico in 1520. This highly prized bean pod is native to the tropical rainforests of Central America, and only recently its cultivation has spread to other tropical regions through the European explorers.
Botanically, it is a perennial herbaceous climbing vine belonging to the family of Orchidaceae, in the genus: vanilla. Scientific name: Vanilla planifolia (flat-leafed vanilla).
|Vanilla beans in a vine Vanilla planifolia.
Note for ready to harvest deep green colored mature beans.
The vanilla is a flowering plant in the orchid family. It has unique growth characteristics and requires a tree or pole support to reach heights. A grown up vine bears many deep, orange-yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers. At its natural habitat, these flowers open up just for a day which sooner should be pollinated either by Melipona bee or long-beaked hummingbirds. However, under supervised cultivation farms, they are manually hand-pollinated. Vanilla beans now are grown at commercially scale in Madagascar, Indonesia, India, Puerto Rica, and West Indies.
|Processed vanilla beans. The beans turn
dark and appear shriveled.
Photo courtesy: acfou
There exist three main cultivars of vanilla of commercial importance. Among them, Vanilla planifolia is the most sought-after beans employed in a variety of confectioneries around the world. The other species include Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitiensis (grown in Polynesian islands). However, their vanillin composition is inferior to Vanilla planifolia.
Unripe vanilla pods harvested when they reach 5-8 inches in length and begin to turn light-yellow. They are then blanched briefly in boiling water, sweated, and dried under the sun over a period of 2-3 weeks until they become dark-brown shriveled pods. Vanillin, a kind of white crystalline efflorescence, appears inside in some of the superior quality pods.
Vanilla beans are one of the expensive non-pungent spices used especially as a flavoring agent in a wide array of sweet drinks and confectionaries.
The vanilla extract is chiefly composed of simple and complex sugars, essential oils, vitamins, and minerals.
The chief chemical component in the beans is vanillin. The pods also comprise of numerous traces of other constituents such as eugenol, caproic acid, phenoles, phenol ether, alcohols, carbonyl compounds, acids, ester, lactones, aliphatic and aromatic carbohydrates and vitispiranes.
Ancient Mayans believed that adding vanilla in drinks would give aphrodisiac effects. No modern research study, however, establishes its role in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions.
Its extract contains small amounts of B-complex groups of vitamins such as niacin, pantothenic acid, thiamin, riboflavin and vitamin B-6. These vitamins help in enzyme synthesis, nervous system function and regulating body metabolism.
This condiment spice also contains small traces of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron and zinc. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure.
Vanilla bean pods can be available in herb and spice stores year around. One may also find the vanilla essence and vanilla sugar in these stores. Vanilla bean pods can be usually available either singly or in small bundles often packed inside long tube or jar.
Buy vanilla products from authentic sources since oftentimes adulteration with artificial flavorings is quite common. A well processed good-quality pod will remain potent for as long as 3-4 years.
Alternatively, store whole vanilla bean in a jar of caster sugar and allow 3-4 weeks for the flavor to permeate into the sugar completely. This fragrant, rich vanilla sugar can be employed in cakes, puddings, pies and ice-creams.
|Vanilla ice-cream on top of muffin!
Photo courtesy: shimelle
|Vanilla beans ice cream with blackberries and raspberries. Photo: kimberlykv|
Real vanilla is pleasantly aromatic and a very expensive spice only after saffron. At home, a natural vanilla extract can be prepared by finely chopping the beans and infusing them by dripping alcohol on the pieces.
Alternatively, the beans are bruised and infused in milk or cream for making ice-cream and sweet puddings.
Here are some serving tips:
One of the finest flavoring bases employed exclusively in the sweet dishes, vanilla is added to cakes, biscuits, desserts, and puddings.
It is also used in other confectionary items to make chocolates, ice-creams, custards, chocolate drinks, etc.
Pure vanilla products are safe to use even in pregnancy and have no reported incidences of adverse reactions or toxicity.
(Medical Disclaimer: The information and reference guides on this website are intended solely for the general information for the reader. It is not to be used to diagnose health problems or for treatment purposes. It is not a substitute for medical care provided by a licensed and qualified health professional. Please consult your health care provider for any advice on medications.)
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