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Synonyms: common vanilla, vanilla bean

botanical name: Vanilla planifolia



Vanilla is native to the northern part of South America and southern Mexico. It thrives in the moist, warm tropical climate.


The first vanilla beans were brought to Europe by the Spaniards in the 16th century. It was not until the 19th century that the first beans were harvested outside of their region of origin, on the French island of Bourbon in the Indian Ocean, known today as Réunion.


Today, in addition to Réunion, other islands off the shore of Africa - Madagascar and the Comoros - plus Indonesia are the chief growing countries. Vanilla is also cultivated in Central America, India, and Uganda.



The production of vanilla for consumption is very labour-intensive and vanilla is therefore the second most expensive spice after saffron. Vanilla is sold year round in the form of beans, powder, extract and vanilla sugar.


Vanillin is a chemical compound that is found up to about 2% in the vanilla pod; however, it is usually made from other starting products. Likewise, vanilla sugar contains no real vanilla but rather vanillin or ethylvanillin.


Appearance, taste, characteristics

The perennial vanilla plant belongs to the orchid family. On its 2- to 3-cm-thick green stems it has aerial rootlets with which the vine can climb up to 20 m upwards on the trees of the primeval forest in its natural environment.


Its fleshy oval leaves are up to 15 cm long. The plant bears numerous short-stemmed inflorescences, each of which contains about 10-15 white-green or pale yellow blossoms.


From the blossoms develop 20 cm long capsules, known generally as beans or incorrectly as pods. Numerous tiny seeds ripen in a pulp within the beans. When the fruits are ripe, they burst open lengthwise and release the seeds.


In the plantations the blossoms are artificially pollinated. In order to simplify the work, the plants are cut back to a height of about 2 m. The capsule fruits are harvested just before they are ripe and open. At this point the beans are green-yellow and scentless.


They do not develop their brown-black colour and the vanilla aroma until they are fermented in a slowed drying process, by which the fruits are repeatedly exposed to moist heat and carefully dried.

Vanilla smells flowery and sweet with a light note of liquorice tobacco. It tastes strong and pleasantly spicy-sweet.



The typical vanilla aroma of the beans that are sold is due primarily to the vanillin content. This component exists as a glycosidic bond in the fresh fruit and is released in the fermentation process, after which the vanillin content is 1.5-4%.


Likewise during drying, vanillyl alcohol and vanillic acid are formed. Together with ions and vitispiranes they contribute to the typical aroma of this spice. The fruits contain sugar and have a residual moisture of 25-25%.


Quality criteria, optimal storage conditions

Vanilla beans should be stored as cool, dry and in the dark as possible. In an airtight container the fruit can be kept for several years. The beans are usually sold in special airtight glass tubes.

The fruits are traded according to country of origin and in different grades of quality. Beans from Réunion often look as though they are covered with frost because they are wetted with vanillin crystals.


If you do not buy whole beans, but rather an extract, look for the term "natural vanilla extract" on the label. In contrast to vanillin sugar, vanilla sugar is guaranteed to be produced from at least 5% grated vanilla.


Form of consumption, use, processing, practical tips for preparation

Vanilla is sold as whole beans, liquid extract and vanilla sugar.


The largest consumer of vanilla is the food industry. Particularly in Western Europe and in the USA, vanilla is used to flavour ice cream, chocolate, sweets and sweet dairy products, especially vanilla pudding, yogurt and curd cheese. Many cakes, cookies and fruit desserts are enhanced with vanilla.


The vanilla bean can be ground, or the pulp can be scraped out. In this case the tiny black seeds are visible in the food. If the bean is soaked in warm liquid, it can then be washed off, dried and used again.


If you keep a bean in a container together with sugar you will have an aromatic sugar to sprinkle on foods.


Vanilla also goes with savoury dishes. It accentuates the sweetness of carrots and tastes good with seafood, chicken and veal dishes. In Mexico black beans are flavoured with vanilla.

When this spice is overheated, some of its aromatic components are unfortunately lost, and one could just as well use vanillin.


Vanilla is used industrially to flavour liqueur, tea and coffee and to make perfume. In some cases, however, it is substituted by cheaper artificial substances.


Seasoning tip

Vanilla harmonizes well with cloves, ginger and cinnamon. Cardamom and saffron also blend well with the aroma.





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