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Common Name

Latin Name Family Country/Origin
Vanilla fragrans Orchidaceae Mexico

Vanilla has been used since the times of the Aztecs in a mixture of cocoa beans, honey and vanilla used to make the sweet drink xocoatl. Vanilla is the third most expensive spice in the world.

Vanilla was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by the explorer Hernan Cortez. A version of xocoatl quickly became popular in Europe but because Europeans had difficulty cultivating vanilla orchids and ultimately failed to produce vanilla beans, vanilla did not continue as an ingredient in hot chocolate. It wasn't until the 19th century that botanists discovered that only Mexican bees and hummingbirds could pollinate the flowers by penetrating through their tough membrane.

Vanilla comes from the orchid variety Vanilla fragrans, the only one of thousands of orchid varieties that bears edible fruit. The orchid flowers are unremarkable compared to most orchids and the plant produces 20 cm long green, bean-like pods. Pods are harvested before the plant flowers, then cured until they turn dark brown. Vanilla pods are steeped in alcohol to produce vanilla extract.

When sliced open, cured pods reveal a small amount of dark brown/black vanilla paste containing thousands of extraordinarily tiny black seeds is harvested. Nothing smells as heavenly as vanilla paste and the oil is sometimes used as a fragrance. One way to tell if food contains real vanilla is to look for the tiny seeds.

The word vanilla is a derivative of the Latin word vagina. In ancient roman times, the word vagina was used as another word for sheath, and vanilla pods are said to resemble sheaths. It is not surprising that, given its exotic history and intoxicating flavor and fragrance, vanilla was used as an aphrodisiac and to cure impotence.

Synthetic vanillin is inferior in taste and quality and is most often used to flavor commercial food products.

Purported Medicinal Qualities*

Vanilla is often used as an aromatic 'flavor' in beauty products or aromatherapy. Vanilla was used as an aphrodisiac, to cure impotence and to provide relief from fevers. No research exists to support these claims, though vanilla is a source of anti-oxidants. Recent research suggests vanilla may help prevent cancer.

Historically, vanilla has been used to:

  • As an aphrodisiac
  • Cure impotence
  • Relieve fever
  • As an anti-oxidant
  • Alleviate stress

*Always check with your healthcare provider before consuming, inhaling or otherwise ingesting any non-prescription or prescription natural or homeopathic substance or pharmaceutical. is not recommending, suggesting, inferring or otherwise endorsing the use of any herb or spice as a medication.

Culinary/Suggested Use

Vanilla extract is a favorite addition to sweet dishes and in the west, is commonly used instead of beans. The beans and extract can be substituted for one another, but the beans will give a slightly different, more unique flavor. Slice the bean and remove its fleshy pulp, then add both the bean and pulp to your ingredients and remove before baking or serving. Do not put vanilla beans in the fridge and keep them away from moisture. Avoid imitation vanilla.  Food for thought:

  • Add vanilla extract to whipped cream or creamed cheese
  • Deglaze meat pans with equal parts meat stock, fruit juice and a touch of vanilla. As the sauce reduces, so does the concentration of vanilla.
  • Store vanilla bean pods in the white sugar canister. Not only will they stay preserved but the sugar will take on a beautiful, flavorful vanilla essence
  • A drop of vanilla, added to hearty stews with winter vegetables adds a new dimension and depth of character that is remarkable but impossible to identify
  • Steep sliced vanilla pods in warm vinegar to make flavored vinegar for fruit salads and dressings
  • Use vanilla bean pulp to make ice cream and smoothies
  • Add vanilla bean pulp to crème brulee or crème caramel recipes
  • Add vanilla to pancake and waffle recipes
  • Add vanilla extract to drip coffee grounds before running hot water through
  • Add a few drops of vanilla extract to iced black or fruit tea

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