Vanilla is expensive for several very good reasons.
Firstly, vanilla beans are grown in only a few select regions of the world, and the growing process involves a great deal of labor. When orchids in the genus Vanilla blossom, each flower must be pollinated for it to turn into a bean. The plant has a symbiotic relationship with a particular species of bee that lives in Central America and northern parts of South America, where vanilla plants grow natively. Without that bee, vanilla blossoms can be carefully pollinated by hand, a discovery made by the Belgian botanist Charles Morren in 1836.
Secondly, after harvesting vanilla beans, producers must cure and dry the fresh beans in order to preserve them and develop their flavor. There are more than two hundred distinct aromatic molecules that give vanilla beans such a complex aroma, but the plant stores these molecules bonded inaccessibly to sugar compounds. It is only after deliberate and continual damage to the bean, usually in the forms of heat and humidity, that these volatile molecules are freed. Once they are released, the full bouquet of vanilla scent—an intoxicating combination of sweet flowers, smoke, caramel, dried fruits, and tobacco—can be smelled.
Vanilla beans produced in different parts of the world have uniquely identifying characteristics. Vanilla grown on Madagascar and neighboring islands is known as Bourbon vanilla, a slightly confusing name because it refers to the Île de Bourbon (now known as Réunion) and not the smoky, caramel, whiskey aromas that it does contain. Mexican vanilla is lighter than Bourbon vanilla and can sometimes have spicy and wine-like flavors. Rare Tahitian vanilla, which is actually from a different species within the Vanilla genus, has a delicate floral scent, with tropical fruit notes.
You’ve no doubt come across fake vanilla extract, a synthetic molecule derived from industrial by-products like wood lignin. Best to steer clear. It’s one-dimensional and boring.
If you’d like to try your hand at making real vanilla extract, the recipe has only two ingredients and asks little of you other than patience.
There’s no need to use top-shelf vodka for making vanilla extract. Choose something mid-range and save your money for buying high-quality vanilla beans. Makes 1 cup
2 vanilla beans
1 cup vodka
Using the tip of a sharp knife, cut the vanilla beans in half lengthwise. Place them in a small, clean bottle. You can cut the beans crosswise, if it helps them fit in the bottle. Pour in the vodka. It should cover the beans completely.
Cover the bottle and set in a cool, dark place for at least 1 month. Every week or so, give it a gentle shake. The color and aroma will intensify with time. (Vanilla extract will keep in the pantry for years.)