8 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Vanilla

The story of vanilla is anything but plain
8 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Vanilla

Believe it or not, the span of time between a fruit-bearing orchid being planted and finished vanilla pods being sent to market can be as long as six years. This is due in part to the fact that the plant can take years to mature. And, once the pods are harvested they can take six to nine months to cure.

Though it’s one of the most labor-intensive crops to produce (and one of the most expensive spices in the world), vanilla has captivated American palate. Vanilla has become the most popular flavor of ice cream in the United States and this fragrant spice shows up in a number of inedible items like candles and perfumes. Despite the fact that it’s so easily accessible and commonly used, however, there is a lot you probably don’t know about vanilla.

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Vanilla, the fruit of several species of orchid of the genus (what else?) Vanilla, grows only in very warm climates close to the equator and is believed to have originated in Mexico. Though several attempts were made to cultivate vanilla elsewhere, they proved unsuccessful for many years because vanilla pollination requires a special species of bee. Vanilla is now produced in many warm-climate areas of the world. Once pollinated, these fruit-bearing orchid plants grow long green pods. The pods are harvested and then left to cure and dry in the sun until they resemble the oily, wrinkled, dark-brown pods we are familiar with. The brown vanilla pods are then used in cooking and baking or to make vanilla extract.

Real vanilla, not to be confused with lab-created artificial vanilla flavorings, has many uses. It is, of course, a popular flavoring in the United States, but it is also powerfully fragrant and can be used in many different ways as an air freshener: an unopened vanilla pod stashed under the seat of your car, for example, is said to eliminate any bad or musty odors in the vehicle.

But what about some of the lesser-known facts about vanilla? Does it really repel mosquitos? Is there really a discernable difference in flavor between the vanilla pods produced in Tahiti versus those grown in Madagascar? Should you really be adding vanilla extract to your homemade tomato sauce and chili? Read on to find out; you’ll see that vanilla is steeped in history and has secrets that make the popular spice anything but vanilla.

Vanilla Beans are Hand-Pollinated

(Credit: Flickr/helen_graham)
In nature, vanilla orchids are pollinated by a very specific species of bee. Because vanilla is now produced in other parts of the world on such a large scale, and because their flowers remain open for fewer than 24 hours, vanilla orchids are pollinated by hand using a small toothpick-like stick. 

Vanilla Beans Shrink Dramatically

(Credit: Shutterstock)
Vanilla beans are picked when they are still green and then left to cure and dry in the sun. If you look at an image of a green vanilla bean, you’ll see how dramatic the difference is between the size of a green and brown vanilla pod; some estimates say that a green pod is as much as four times as large as the subsequent brown one.

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Kristie Collado is The Daily Meal’s Cook Editor. Follow her on Twitter @KColladoCook.