Vanilla is a flavoring compound derived from tropical orchids of the Vanilla genus. There are several types of vanilla, each with a rich, aromatic flavor. The vanilla orchids are native to Mexico, although today vanilla is harvested from tropical regions around the world, including Tahiti, Indonesia, and Madagascar. The vanilla orchid only grows within a 20 degree radius of the equator.
Mexican Vanilla - Mexican vanilla is derived from the V. planifolia species, which grows in the gulf coast region of Mexico. This type of vanilla is sometimes mixed with tonka bean extract, which smells similar to vanilla, but is far less expensive.
Bourbon Vanilla - Bourbon vanilla does not actually contain any bourbon, but takes its name from the island in Madagascar on which it originally grew, Ile Bourbon. This vanilla is also derived from the V. planifolia species, but grown in Madagascar.
Tahitian Vanilla - Tahitian vanilla is made from the V. tahitiensis species and grown in French Polynesia.
West Indian Vanilla - This vanilla is grown in the Caribbean, Central, and South America and is made from the V. pompona species.
French Vanilla - This is not an actual variety of vanilla, as France is well outside the growing climate of the vanilla plant. Rather, French vanilla refers to the extra creamy vanilla preparations that are common in French cuisine. These creamy concoctions, most often used for ice cream, use egg yolk to produce an extra rich and creamy vanilla flavored product.
There are several ways that vanilla is prepared and readied for sale. Each is suitable for a different culinary application.
Dried Vanilla Beans - Whole, dried vanilla pods are the most potent vanilla product. The whole pods can be chopped, macerated, or simmered whole in liquid to add flavor. Sometimes the seeds are scraped out from the pod and used alone in a recipe. When the pods or seeds are added to a liquid or recipe, they lend an amber brown color and sometimes black flecks to the food.
Vanilla Extract - Vanilla extract is a potent flavoring made by macerating and soaking vanilla beans in an alcohol solution. The FDA specifies that pure vanilla extract must contain at least 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean per gallon of extract, and the solution must be a 35/65 ratio of alcohol to water. The resulting extract can be easily added to beverages, baked goods, candy, and more.
Vanilla Powder - Dried vanilla pods can be ground to a powder and then used to flavor sugar or other dry mixtures.
Imitation Vanilla Extract - Imitation vanilla is made from a compound called vanillan, which can be derived from wood and is often a byproduct of the paper making industry. Although this product has a very similar aroma and flavor to real vanilla, some say that it has a slightly bitter after taste. Taste tests have revealed, though, that the difference between imitation and real vanilla can not be detected in baked goods, but real vanilla wins out in cold or unbaked preparations.