Vanilla (Vanilla fragrans) gets its name from Spanish vainilla meaning “little pod” because it comes from the thin, seed-containing pods of an edible tropical orchid plant. Possessing one of the world’s most enticing flavors, it is the world’s next most expensive spice after saffron and cardamom. It is also among the most popular – 10,000 tons a year – not enough to satisfy demand, which is why imitation vanilla has become a market necessity, though lacking the potency of the real stuff.
The orchid is a very sensuous flower and has an ancient reputation for enhancing romance. Hence, vanilla was often recommended as a tonic for virility, fertility and for aromatizing perfume, cigars and liqueurs. Native to Mexico, the Aztecs treated it as a medicinal charm, prescribed for hysteria and depression (so-called “women’s troubles”), as well as for patients coughing up blood. In 18th century Europe it was popular as a nerve stimulant. 19th Century American medical texts praised its powers to “exhilarate the brain,…increase muscular energy, and stimulate the sexual energies.”
Today, especially in the last two decades, vanilla has been the subject of much scientific investigation because its seeds contain over 200 phytonutrients – bioactive plant compounds which have healing potential for many conditions. Its most studied main constituent, vanillin, which produces the mellow fragrance, has shown promise in cancer and sickle cell anemia. True to its ancient heritage, the spice also has proven aphrodisiac ability – in treating impotency, frigidity, erectile dysfunction and loss of libido – and is valued as an anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory and for its general relaxing and calming effect on the brain and nerves, relieving anxiety and anger.
Buying and Storage
Vanilla is sold in two forms: dried whole bean and extract. The bean has the better flavor, but quality varies depending on origin. French or bourbon vanilla is generally considered the best with the strongest aroma and most vanillin. This is the type found most in the U.S. Mexican vanilla, though full-bodied, lacks the depth of French and Indonesian and has a spotty reputation quality-wise. West Indian vanilla has low vanillin content and is not considered suitable as a culinary spice; it’s mainly used in cosmetics.
Beans are usually sold in cylindrical tubes. Look for dark brown (almost) black beans, moist to the touch and pliable, like a piece of licorice. Top quality beans may have a dusting of sugar powder, called givre, on the surface.
As for extract, buy pure (or natural) vanilla extract. Beans are chopped, soaked in alcohol, aged and strained. Alcoholic content affects quality: the higher the % alcohol, the stronger flavor (minimum by law 35%). (Note: It’s quite easy to make your own and less expensive; see recipe.)
Store beans or commercial extract in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Both keep for about 18 months. Homemade extract lasts longer.
Cancer: Numerous studies have demonstrated that vanillin, the major component of vanilla, has anti-carcinogenic properties, killing human cancer cells, limiting metastasis (movement of cancer cells from the original site to the rest of the body), inhibiting angiogenesis (creation of new blood supply for tumor). Bromovanin, a vanillin derivative, has been found to stop the advance of a broad spectrum of human cancers. Research at New York University School of Medicine concluded that vanillin is antimutagenic – in human cells it reduced by up to 73% the ability of toxins to mutate DNA in 64 genes that may play a role in cancer.
Sickle Cell Anemia: This inherited, incurable condition warps the round, flexible shape of oxygen-carrying red blood cells into rigid, sticky “sickles,” slices of cells like crescent moons. Misshapen cells snag and stall in the bloodstream, choking blood and oxygen flow, producing pain and fatigue, the main symptoms of the disease. In studies at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a vanillin-derived drug on mice with the disease “significantly reduced” the % of sickled cells. Human studies are in the works.
Aphrodisiac: Since the time of the Aztecs, vanilla has been considered an aphrodisiac, now confirmed by science. A systematic administration of vanilla essential oil to patients with impotency, erectile dysfunction, frigidity, loss of libido, etc., has been proven to relieve these conditions. This oil stimulates secretion of certain hormones like testosterone, estrogen, etc., which can help bring about normal sexual behavior, as well as promote arousal. The oil has also been shown to regularize menstruation by activating certain hormones like estrogen and progesterone.
Anti-depressant: Vanilla essential oil with its soft, rich aroma is an effective mood up-lifter. Perhaps this is why “plain” vanilla ice cream is the most universally popular flavor!
Sedative: The essential oil of vanilla soothes all types of inflammations and hyperactivity in body systems, particularly the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, nervous and eliminations systems.These relaxant properties can alleviate insomnia, as well as lower blood pressure. In general, the oil has a calming effect on the brain and nerves, giving relief from convulsions, anxiety, stress, anger, hypersensitivity, restlessness, etc.
In the Kitchen
In Europe and the U.S., vanilla is traditionally found in sweet dishes, though vanilla itself is not sweet. It’s gentle, full-bodied fragrance enhances puddings, cakes, custards, creams, soufflés, ice cream, even liqueurs like Crème de Cacao and Galliano. In Africa and other tropical countries, however, it’s used more in savory stews than sweet treats. Western chefs are just beginning to catch on, adding vanilla to sauces, mostly for fish.
If possible, use fresh beans instead of extract, though both can be used in cooking. To prepare the bean, slit the pod and scrape out the seeds; both pod and seeds can be added. Here are a few different ways of cooking with vanilla:
- The spice is exceptional with lobster, shrimp, scallops. Make a cream sauce and spike with vanilla beans.
- Vanilla marries well with butter. Add a little to butter sauces for savory dishes featuring fish or chicken.
- Use vanilla to round out stronger flavors in salsa, chutney, curries.
- Steep a vanilla bean in coffee, cover and chill. Serve with whipped cream and grated nutmeg.
- Add vanilla to fruit compotes with apples, gooseberries, rhubarb.
- Add a drop or 2 of vanilla extract to holiday eggnog or when whipping fresh cream.
So don’t be fooled by the common appellation, i.e., put down, “plain vanilla.” Clearly, there’s something special going on or the spice wouldn’t be in such demand. Other flavors come and go; they can only dream about having the universal staying power of vanilla!