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The creation and use of vanillaThe creation and use of vanilla

Vanilla is one of America's favorite flavors. Growing and processing vanilla beans takes time, knowledge and patience.

March 1, 1996

16 Min Read
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Thoughts of one of America's favorite flavors, vanilla, evoke feelings of warmth and comfort. Even infants seem soothed by its flavor and aroma. Just taking a whiff from a bottle of pure vanilla extract can send the olfactory system into euphoria. The Aztecs and the Europeans once considered the vanilla bean to be a powerful aphrodisiac.

Vanilla has many obvious applications in dairy products, baked goods and confections, but have you ever thought of adding just a little bit to your sauces, stews or dressings?

Growing and processing vanilla beans takes much time, knowledge and patience. Poorer quality products result from speeding up the process. Both consumers and food product designers would never again refer to this complex flavor as "plain old vanilla" if they realized the steps involved in taking vanilla from the vine to the bottle.

Growing conditions

Vanilla comes from the fruit pods of a large, climbing tropical vine that is a member of the orchid family. The vanilla orchid is the only one of the 35,000 or more species in this family to produce an edible fruit. Although over 50 species of vanilla orchid exist, only three have been used commercially: Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla tahitensis, and Vanilla pompona.

Almost all of the vanilla imported into the U.S. comes from Vanilla planifolia Andrews (also known as Vanilla fragrans (Salisbury) Ames). This species is native to southeastern Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, and the northern part of South America. Mexico, once the hub of vanilla production, now uses its land for other purposes. Today, almost all vanilla beans are grown on islands such as Madagascar and the Indonesian Islands. Extracts of Tahitian vanilla, grown on the French Pacific Islands, have a much different flavor profile than planifolia beans. Although V. pompona is rarely seen today, it has been used in the perfume industry.

Vanilla vines grow best in tropical climates 25 degrees north or south of the equator. Ample rainfall and an even mixture of sun and shade are needed, with no extended droughts or high winds. The vines do best in rich, "humusy" soil on gentle slopes with even drainage.

If left unpruned, the vines may grow as high as the forest canopy, but they will not flower. On vanilla plantations they are pruned and trained downward not only to increase flowering, but to keep the flowers and beans within easy reach of the workers for pollination and harvest.

The vanilla plant is propagated by cuttings that are planted at the base of supporting "mother" trees. The plants will not bear fruit or flowers until the third or fourth year, with maximum yields after seven or eight years. The vines are abandoned at 10 to 12 years old when they are no longer commercially productive.

It may take up to six weeks for a bud to turn into a flower. Although one vine may produce as many as 1,000 orchid blossoms, only 5% to 30% will be selected for hand-pollination. The orchids flower in the morning, wilt by early afternoon, and drop to the ground by early evening if not fertilized.

The pods mature seven to nine months after pollination. A green vanilla bean resembles a large green bean filled with thousands of tiny seeds. Ideally the beans would be picked before they fully ripen, when only the blossom-end tips are pale yellow. Then the beans undergo a long, complex curing and drying process which develops their distinctive flavor character.


Both the vanilla orchid and the ripe vanilla bean lack aroma. It is only during the curing process that glucovanillin, a vanillin precursor formed during the ripening of the vanilla fruit, is enzymatically converted to glucose and vanillin. The longer a bean vine-ripens, the more concentrated the vanillin and other flavor compounds are after curing.   Higher vanillin indicates higher bean quality, which impacts the beans' market value. Beans left on the vine split and decrease in quality. Curing should begin within a week after harvest.

The Mexicans developed the original, labor-intensive, five- to six-month process for curing green vanilla beans. The "Bourbon" process, named for the original designation of the island of Reunion, is a result of slight modifications made by the French. This method, which takes about four to six months, is currently practiced in Madagascar, Comoros, and Reunion. Indonesian beans were originally picked while they were still immature to avoid theft. Although their curing process takes from several weeks to two months, the Indonesians have begun to adopt Bourbon growing and curing practices to increase their bean quality.

The curing process varies among growing regions and many bean curers use a combination of techniques, yet all curing methods involve four phases that directly affect the amount of vanillin and other flavor components in the beans:

  • Wilting or killing of the beans stops their respiration. Heat is applied to the pods either by letting them sun-dry, as in the traditional Mexican method, or by submersing them in hot water for several minutes, as in the Bourbon process.

  • Sweating the wilted beans involves rapid dehydration and slow fermentation to develop key flavor components. The beans are alternately sun-dried during the day and wrapped in boxes at night for several weeks until the beans acquire a deep chocolate-brown color.

  • Drying the beans very slowly at low temperatures results in a final moisture level of about 20% to 25%. Over-drying or rapid drying reduces flavor quality. In the past, Indonesians used wood fires to accelerate the drying process, which causes the beans to develop a smoky aroma and flavor.

  • Conditioning is an aging process necessary for flavor development that involves placing the dried beans into closed boxes for several months.

McCormick & Co. Inc., Hunt Valley, MD, uses a one- to two-week curing process in which the beans are chopped and placed into a curing tank for about 72 hours until they are no longer green. Then they are dried in a rotary or fluidized dryer, and spread out in a perforated conditioner until the desired moisture level is achieved.

After curing, the vanilla beans are graded and bundled. Top-grade beans are oily, smooth, aromatic and very dark brown. The beans are then packed in boxes and shipped by boat. The beans continue to age during shipping; it may take several months for them to reach their destinations.

Forms of vanilla

Vanilla beans can be used in their whole or ground form; however, they are most commonly used for producing extracts, flavors, oleoresins and powders.


Vanilla is the only flavor with a U.S. FDA standard of identity in the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 169). Single-fold extract must contain extractive material from 13.35 oz. of vanilla beans (at 25% moisture) per gallon and at least 35% alcohol by volume. Anything less than 35% must be labeled "vanilla flavor." Optional ingredients include glycerin, corn syrup, sugar and propylene glycol.

Extracts are made by crushing the vanilla beans, extracting with an alcohol/water mixture, and separating the residue from the liquid. Variables such as extraction time and temperature affect the quality of the extract. Imitation vanilla extract is composed of natural and artificial flavorings, including vanillin.

  • Concentrated vanilla extract (or flavor) is made by removing some of the solvent -- usually by vacuum distillation -- until the desired concentration or "fold" is reached. Each fold must correspond to an original 13.35 oz. of beans in the starting extract before concentration, so a two-fold would have the extractable of 26.7 oz. of beans. Higher folds such as 10x or 20x are made by diluting oleoresins, which do not contain solvent. Distillation destroys some of the aromatic substances of vanilla flavor.

  • Vanilla-vanillin extract (flavoring or powder) is a vanilla extract to which one ounce of vanillin has been added for every one fold of vanilla extract. It has an alcohol content of not less than 35%. A flavoring contains less than 35% alcohol. Powders contain one vanilla constituent (extractive matter from 13.35 oz. of beans) plus 1 oz. of vanillin in 8 lbs. of dry blend. These products are labeled as "natural and artificial flavor."

  • Vanilla powder is a mixture of ground vanilla beans and/or vanilla oleoresin combined with carbohydrate carriers and flow agents. A powder contains one vanilla constituent per 8 lbs. of product.

  • Vanillin. Over 250 components contribute to the flavor profile of vanilla, yet only vanillin is imitated. Natural vanillin is present in vanilla beans at 2% by weight. A cheaper artificial form (USP vanillin) can be synthesized from guaiacol, a coal tar derivative; or produced from lignin, a byproduct of the paper industry. The two sources have similar flavor profiles. Although synthetic vanillin is labeled "artificial" in the U.S., it is considered "nature-identical" in Europe (chemically identical to the natural substance).

  • Ethyl vanillin is a synthetic or "artificial" chemical that tastes the same as vanillin, but is about 2.5 times stronger. It can be used in imitation vanillas. Sourcing and flavor characteristics Many variables factor into the flavor characteristics of vanilla extract, including country of origin, crop year, curing techniques, storage conditions, lots, extraction method, and manufacturer. For many years, flavor profiles of vanillas were described by their origin. Today, profiles within the origins are changing.

Vanilla produced from Madagascar (Bourbon) beans has been considered the industry's gold standard, "but the quality of beans from that area has declined over the last 20 years because of political and economic instability," according to Benjamin H. Kaestner III, director of spice procurement for McCormick. "After the economy declined, there was very little incentive for the farmers and curers to do a good job. They used to keep a three- or four-year stock of vanilla beans, which continued to improve with age, but now they have less than a one-year inventory. Vanillin levels in Madagascar beans have decreased up to 40% in some cases.

"On the other hand," he continues, "Indonesian vanilla quality has improved greatly over the last 20 years. Vanillin was measured in trace amounts; now the vanillin levels have equaled or surpassed that of Madagascar beans. Some continue to say Madagascar beans have the best flavor, while others claim Indonesian beans are the best."

Because vanilla preference is subjective, vanilla users should not specify origin, but rather the flavor profile they want. Basic flavor characters are used to describe vanilla, such as vanillin, resinous/leathery, woody, "pruney," fruity, chocolate, smoky, and bourbon/rummy. A Bourbon vanilla is marked by moderate bourbon/rummy notes, slight to moderate resin, and slight vanillin, woody, pruney. While the flavor profile of high quality Indonesian vanilla is similar to Bourbon vanilla, a low quality Indonesian is moderately smoky, woody and leathery, with very slight vanillin and bourbon/rummy notes. Tahitian vanilla is characterized by moderate fruity, floral notes (heliotropin) with slight vanillin and bourbon/rummy notes.

Applications of vanilla

Most vanilla used in the food industry is in dairy products, followed by beverages, baked goods and confections. However, vanilla is often used as a background note or flavor enhancer to round out the flavor profiles of many food products. The type of vanilla used depends on the product, the ingredients in the base formulation, and the desired flavor profile.

Flavor enhancer

  • Chocolate. The marriage of vanilla and chocolate has been a successful one dating back to the 1500s when Montezuma welcomed Cortes to Mexico with a vanilla-cocoa beverage. Vanilla softens or rounds out harsh, bitter notes in most chocolate applications such as ice creams, cakes and syrups. In confections such as chocolate bars, powdered vanillin is used most often.

  • Fruits/sweet flavors. Vanilla is often used to enhance fruit flavors in many dairy and beverage applications. It rounds out many fruit flavors and takes off some of the tart edges. It is generally used as a background note in a variety of sweet and fruit flavors to round out the flavor profile.

  • Sweetness. "Vanilla enhances the sweetness perception of foods, especially in bakery products," explains Jean Kuster, product manager-dairy, Beck Flavors, St. Louis. "If you had a product with and without vanilla, most people would perceive the one with added vanilla as sweeter. If you are designing reduced calorie products and are cutting back on sugar in order to achieve that goal, you might be able to add a little bit more vanilla to enhance the sweetness perception."

Dairy products

Vanilla is the most popular flavoring for ice cream. The type, or "category," of vanilla used determines how ice cream is labeled:


  • Category 1: Natural vanilla extract. Two-fold vanilla is commonly used. Ice cream products must be labeled as "vanilla ice cream."

  • Category 2: Vanilla-vanillin extract. This is considered natural and artificial (N&A), where the natural component is the characterizing flavor. Ice cream products must be labeled as "vanilla flavored ice cream."

  • Category 3: Natural and artificial vanilla flavors or artificial vanilla flavors, where the artificial component predominates. Ice cream products must be labeled "artificially flavored vanilla ice cream."

Altering the balance of ingredients such as fat, sweetener, or milk solids in dairy product formulations means that food product designers may need to alter their flavor systems, as well. Changing one or more ingredients usually affects the type of vanilla used in the product, a consideration that is often ignored.

The amount of fat in ice creams greatly influences the type of vanilla used. "With a 10% to 14% butterfat content, Bourbons work very well," according to Craig Neilsen, vice president, Neilsen-Massey Vanillas, Waukegan, IL. "At the 14% to 16% fat level, the fat tends to mask the vanilla flavor, so a blend of Bourbon/Indonesian is more effective. This blend delivers an initial impact of vanilla in the front of the mouth, followed by the Bourbon in the back of the mouth. As the fat increases, the overrun decreases, which impacts the level of vanilla. Generally, you have to use more vanilla in a higher fat base because there isn't as much air carrying it through to the product."

Although pure vanilla extract may be used in low-fat bases, it does not work well in no-fat systems. "The majority of customers run into problems when formulating low- or no-fat dairy products," says Joni Diedrich, a flavorist in Baltimore.

Either vanilla WONF or N&A vanilla flavors work better than straight extracts, according to Diedrich. "This gives you more flexibility for adding the notes necessary to cover up the 'cardboardy,' gummy, starchy notes often introduced in a low- or no-fat system," she says. "You may need to add creamy, buttery notes, or a masking flavor that has a blend of sweet, brown, buttery notes in order to cover up the off notes in the base.

"In general, you have to use about 50% more vanilla flavor in low- or no-fat systems in order to produce the best-tasting products," Diedrich continues. "If you require extracts in your dairy products, you can either try Bourbon vanilla by itself or a blend of a Bourbon and a high quality Indonesian. Low quality Indonesians come across as smoky and phenolic, and do nothing to improve the flavor in low- and no fat bases. Although Tahitian vanillas may blend well in higher fat bases, their fruitiness is often accentuated in reduced-fat products."

Says Kuster: "When alternative sweeteners are used in dairy products, you must usually alter the type of vanilla used in the formulation. Every change that is introduced alters the flavor profile of your product. For example, you probably couldn't use the same vanilla in a sugar-free ice cream mix as in a sucrose-based mix. You need to evaluate the sugarfree base independently. Whenever you make a change in a base formulation, you need to consider the impact of that change on your vanilla. Your current vanilla may no longer deliver the flavor impact or performance that your product requires."

The type of milk solids used in ice cream mixes is also an important factor for selecting vanillas. "Whether your formulation includes fresh milk and cream, nonfat dry milk, or whey solids affects the flavor profile of the base before it's flavored," says Kuster "This influences your selection of the proper type, usage and blend of vanilla for optimum flavor."

Bakery products

Pure vanilla extract is generally not used for baking because the aromatic components of extracts begin to volatilize at about 280° to 300°F, a temperature that is readily attained in cookie baking. Cakes rarely exceed 210°F internally, so an extract or blend of extracts may be used successfully, but a stronger extract such as a two-fold may be more effective. Vanilla-vanillin extracts and artificial flavors are generally recommended for baking applications. Natural and/or artificial flavors give food product designers the added benefit of blending vanilla with various flavor notes such as buttery, nutty and brown sugar.


Vanilla is an important flavor component in colas, in addition to the complex of spice and citrus notes. A recent publication listed vanilla as well as 25 other flavor notes responsible for a cola flavor. Cream sodas, root beer, and some fruit beverages also may contain vanilla.

Vanillin or vanilla flavors are used in many alcoholic beverages, such as whiskeys, cordials and cocktails, to round out and smooth the harsh edges of the alcohol. In whiskey products, vanillin is one of the chemicals extracted from the oak barrels in which the products age. Generally, vanillin and flavorings, rather than vanilla extract, are used in alcohol-containing beverages because of the regulations governing this industry.

Savory applications

Vanilla and sweet goods go hand in hand, but have you ever thought of vanilla vinaigrette, vanilla glaze over pork, or vanilla stir-fry? Product developers who are looking for unique flavor profiles in savory applications may try using vanilla to boost or blend flavors.

"The potential use of vanilla extract in savory applications is limited only by a developer's creativity," according to Marianne Gillette, market manager for McCormick Flavors, Hunt Valley, MD.

The food product designers at McCormick have come up with an entire luncheon menu, from appetizers to desserts, that incorporates vanilla extract into the three applications noted above, as well as Tournedos with Mushrooms Madagascar, Vanilla Apricot Fried Rice, Vanilla Baked Beans, and Grilled Shrimp in Vanilla Sauce. According to the description for the shrimp dish, "Pure vanilla extract melds the flavors of garlic and bay leaf in a light sauce."

Vanilla is also featured in many non-traditional recipes, such as cream of chicken and vanilla soup, vanilla mayonnaise, and vanilla baked acorn squash, in the Vanilla Cookbook, by Patricia Rain.

"Vanilla is a wonderful flavor enhancer that boosts the flavor of savory as well as sweet products," says Gillette. "When vanilla is used as a subtle, background note (usage level less than 0.5%), it brings out desirable flavor notes and rounds out flavor profiles." She notes her own home use of vanilla extract in spaghetti and seafood sauces. Other possibilities include dishes with chicken, pot roast, spare ribs, chili, and macaroni and cheese.

"You only need to add a dash. The idea is not to taste vanilla, but to marry the flavors," Gillette adds.

Vanilla is an exotic, complex flavor that is liked throughout the world. Food product designers are continually discovering new uses for all ingredients, so why not add a little vanilla to your barbecue sauce or vinaigrette for something just a little bit different?

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