Ah, vanilla. A baker’s gold. Have you ever wondered how vanilla extract came to be? I did. My curiosity as to what was in the little bottle at the store and what made it so darn EXPENSIVE led me here to share this experiment and history with you.
According to the sources used in the Wikipedia article on vanilla, this intoxicating flavoring comes from a pod that grows on the plants of the orchid genus Vanilla. (See my picture from Phipps Conservatory below!) This plant was originally cultivated in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica by the Aztecs and was called tlilxochitl. 
Additionally, if you enjoy mythology you will love this. According to Totonac lore, this orchid was born into the world when Princess Xanat fled to the forest with her lover after her father expressly forbid it so. The two were captured and beheaded. As the story goes, in the location where their blood touched the earth, the lovely vanilla orchid began to grow.
Conquistador Hernando Cortes is credited with its travelling to Europe where the little plant experienced difficulties with pollination due to a lack of the native Melipona Bee. Uh oh! What is a continent to do? Well, long story short, they figured out how to hand pollinate it. Imagine people spreading the little pollinators flower to flower with teeny brushes (today Q-Tips are often used). Now, can you imagine a French patisserie left without the use of vanilla?
These super cool little bean pods turn black when they are picked and cured, hence the Aztec name tlilxochitl or “black flower.” You can use them by splitting one down the middle with a paring knife and carefully scraping out the seeds. These can be added to creme (mmmmmmm) or desserts. Personally, I take the bean pod leftover and throw it in my sugar jar and it infuses my sugar with the most lovely flavor and NO WASTE! My heart be stilled.
Now, if you buy extract in the store, it has usually been steeped in ethyl alcohol or a combination of water and alcohol (cheap). Mexican vanilla has a reputation for adding weird compounds such as coal tar to enhance flavor and imitation vanilla gets its lovely taste from paper mill runoff. If you buy in the store, read your label please. Know the words or be happy eating tar.
Since you are going to see a lot of words thrown around on bottles of vanilla, this clarification may help. Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla and Mexican vanilla are made from the strain v.planifolia and Tahitian vanilla and “West Indian” Vanilla from the v.tahitiensis and v.pompona strains respectively. Each has varying characteristics, though I have only tried McCormick’s two versions, Nielsen-Massey Bourbon-Madagascar (nice) and a watered down Mexican bottle bought at a resort made from the same bean. Hands down, the Nielsen wins as do the straight beans themselves. But let’s face it, if you bake alot, those beans get mighty pricey and even the bottles add up. What to do? Enter homemade vanilla.
I scoured the internet after reading that this was in fact possible to make homemade vanilla extract from the fabulous Joy the Baker. No doubt if you find well-priced beans this makes more vanilla extract than the average family can use in a year AND being it is not watered down, higher strength. This will last indefinitely.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
makes two pints
- Clean and sterilize two pint mason jars.
- Slice 8 vanilla beans down the middle, scraping out their seeds. Place four pods worth of seeds in each jar. Slice pods in half and place four in each jar.
- Fill one jar with vodka.
- Fill one jar with rum (for fun and variation. richer flavor).
- Cap tightly.
- Put in dark location for at least two months. Shake when you remember.
- Advice: Wait as long as you can. Take this as a spiritual exercise in patience. Mine are three and going. The best flavor is yet to come.
- Use for all your baking and tasting needs. Think: lattes, cream on strawberries, banana bread, yogurt etc.
I purchased some nice vanilla bean pods at a nice price here: Premium Bourbon-Madagascar Vanilla Beans – 7 beans
- James D. Ackerman (June 2003). “Vanilla”. Flora of South America 26 (4): 507. Retrieved 2008-07-22. “Spanish vainilla, little pod or capsule, referring to long, podlike fruits”
- The Herb Society of Nashville (2008-05-21). “The Life of Spice”. The Herb Society of Nashville. Retrieved 2008-07-23. “Following Montezuma’s capture, one of Cortés’ officers saw him drinking “chocolatl” (made of powdered cocoa beans and ground corn flavored with ground vanilla pods and honey). The Spanish tried this drink themselves and were so impressed by this new taste sensation that they took samples back to Spain.’ and ‘Actually it was vanilla rather than the chocolate that made a bigger hit and by 1700 the use of vanilla was spread over all of Europe. Mexico became the leading producer of vanilla for three centuries. – Excerpted from ‘Spices of the World Cookbook’ by McCormick and ‘The Book of Spices’ by Frederic Rosengarten, Jr”
- Silver Cloud Estates. “History of Vanilla”. Silver Cloud Estates. Retrieved 2008-07-23. “In 1837 the Belgian botanist Morren succeeded in artificially pollinating the vanilla flower. On Reunion, Morren’s process was attempted, but failed. It was not until 1841 that a 12-year-old slave by the name of Edmond Albius discovered the correct technique of hand-pollinating the flowers.”