Vanilla extract adds that extra something-something to our cookies, cakes, and muffins, and vanilla beans taste great in ice cream and cocktails, but how much do we really know about the spice other than it's delicious and classic? That's why I turned to expert Natasha MacAllister, author of the new cookbook Vanilla Table ($40), to discuss this elusive spice.
According to the book's Vanilla 101 section, vanilla is actually a fruit of the vanilla orchid. Vanilla is extremely difficult to pollinate. There is only one bee in the world that naturally pollinates the flowers, and humans must hand-pollinate it from sunrise to midday, otherwise "the flower withers and dies and you don't get a vanilla bean." This is why "vanilla is second only to saffron as the most expensive spice on the planet." In a phone interview, Natasha explained more about the production, flavor, and application of the four distinct vanillas that are commercially available.
Bourbon vanilla: "Primarily grown in Madagascar, 55 percent of the world's vanilla is from there. Bourbon vanilla is the real workhorse and my favorite at the moment. It's basically picked, blanched, then taken out in the sunshine to drain and cure and wrapped up in blankets at night to protect it from moisture, rain, and humidity. It is sweated for nine months." According to the book, Bourbon vanilla has a "rich classic flavor, some say of rum, raisin, and brown sugar."
Mexican vanilla [from the same species as Bourbon vanilla]: "Mexican vanilla is blanched as well, but it's dried in an oven. It has more of a spicy quality to it so it's better for things like coffee and chocolate, a bit of those nuances to it."
Indonesian vanilla: "Indonesian vanilla is cured by baking, but it's near an open flame so it has a bit of a smokiness to it. It tends to be perfectly suited for slow-cooking things, things like sausage and more savory applications."
Tahitian vanilla: "Tahitian vanilla has that lovely, light, fragrant nuances to it, which is more suitable for things like cakes, fresh fruit, cream, and whatnot. [Production] is more like the Bourbon vanilla technique where it's blanched, sweated, and cured." Since production is so small, it is the most expensive vanilla in the world, according to the book.