Vanilla Beans - Vanilla Extract For the Energetic Kitchen

Vanilla beans are among one of nature's best loved spices. It is often referred to as the spice of heaven. And it is no wonder that vanilla extract is used in everything from chocolate cakes to gourmet espresso drinks. But not many people know just how delicious vanilla is, or how much flavor it adds to foods and drinks.

Vanilla beans are native to central Mexico, but today they are cultivated nearly everywhere, mostly in lower-lying areas like Southern California. Vanilla is a popular spice extracted from orchids belonging to the family named after the ancient tree from which they are grown, orchid-tree vanilla. The Latin name for vanilla is vulgaris, a variant of martia which means "wild-cherry". The word vanilla, properly derived from vulgaris, is also translates as "wild strawberry". Some orchid species produce a white, off-white liquid when under pressure.

Vanilla beans themselves are low in acidity, so they are very pleasant to taste even if slightly bitter. However, some flavors do go better with bitterer than sweet flavors. Vanilla, together with other natural spices, give food an aromatic quality, adding to the flavor and appeal of dishes such as cake, custards, ice cream and cookies. It also gives coffee a subtle, complex flavor.

In addition, vanilla beans contain essential fatty acids which are beneficial to the heart and protect against certain cancers. The beans are high in lignin, an essential oil found in linen and wool products. Vanilla contains numerous chemical constituents which have antimicrobial and insect repellent qualities. It has been used in perfumery since the Middle Ages, but its true aroma is only just beginning to be recognized. Vanilla flavonoids have antimicrobial properties as well, and some of them are active against microorganisms like yeast, Escherichia coli, Salmonella and Candida albicans. 
Vanilla has a distinct odor, which is partly due to the oils that comprise it. It is extracted from the berries using heat, through a cold press method, under pressure, or as is more commonly done, by hand. After the vanilla beans are roasted, they are ground into powder. The powder is then used for many culinary applications including flavoring ice cream, chewing gum, marshmallows, candies, and cookies. Vanilla flavonoids, including vanillin and tannin, have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. They have been found to reduce the risks of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer.

Vanilla beans are extremely perishable. As a result, the flavor and aroma in vanilla beans are often lost after a single day of roast. This process is known as 'first crack' and is why whole beans need to be roasted before they can be used for flavoring. This is also the reason why you can only buy vanilla online from reputable wholesale sources.