Mexican vanilla is a rare and unusual spice; here's how to utilize it

How to make use of vanilla, a unique and expensive spice that originates in Mexico.

Mexican vanilla is a rare and unusual spice; here's how to utilize it
How to utilize vanilla, the costly and exotic Mexican spice. Photo by Chelsea Audibert / Unsplash

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world because it is hard and takes a long time to get out of the pod. Only 0.1 to 0.5% of vanilla-flavored products on the market contain the real vanilla pod, according to research.

Vanilla comes from Mexico, where it has been used for a long time to make drinks taste better. Later, people tried to grow it in Europe, but they couldn't because it can only be pollinated by bees that live in Mexico. A botanist came up with a method that is still used today. Each vanilla flower has to be hand-pollinated.

The process is hard because each plant can only be pollinated once a year. After the vanilla pods are picked, they are washed in hot water, fermented overnight, sun-dried for 15 days, fermented again, and then dried. Through fermentation, the real vanilla flavor and aroma are made. This takes about a year to do.

Due to its great flavoring power, vanilla is one of the most demanded products in the food and beverage industry. However, it is recommended to consume it naturally by adding its extract to smoothies, refreshing drinks, ice creams, shaved ice, desserts, and bread that do not require high amounts of sugar. Natural vanilla extract is enough to flavor what we eat or drink, and it helps us to appreciate its original flavors.

Natural vanilla sugar

Making natural vanilla sugar is the easiest thing to do with a vanilla pod. When the sugar is put in a container with a lid and left for a few weeks, the seeds in the pod are added. This makes vanilla sugar that tastes very strong.

Flavour accent in sweet dishes

To add vanilla to sweets, you have to mix it with fat like butter, oil, milk, or cream. Both the pod and the seeds are put in the fatty liquid and heated until the first bubble forms. It's important not to cook it too much, because if you do, some of the subtle flavors will be lost. Then, it sits for a few hours or even overnight to let the flavors combine.

A complement to savory dishes

French cooks have used vanilla for centuries not only for sweet dishes but also for savory ones to add flavor and make them taste better. Adding vanilla to savory foods is best done with vanilla oil. The way it's made is very similar to how sweet dishes are made: the oil and vanilla pod are heated until the first bubble forms, and then the oil is left to steep for a while.

Vanilla can be added to dishes with oil, like salad dressings or pesto, to add flavor and keep the food from sticking together. It can also be stirred into pasta to make it taste better and keep it from sticking together.

Vanilla is often added to fish dishes, like when they are fried in vanilla butter or when a sauce is made. Vanilla will make something smell and taste good. It can also be used to make stews or roast vegetables in the oven. Vanilla has been used in Italy for a long time to cut down on too much acidity. For example, you don't always have to add sugar to tomato sauces to make them less acidic. If you use a vanilla pod or vanilla extract, the flavor will be less strong.

Natural vanilla: what is it and where does its flavor come from?

Vanilla comes from Papantla, Veracruz, which is home to the Totonaca culture. The best tasters in the world know and appreciate vanilla. The fragrant fruit, which the Nahuatl language calls "tlilxóchitl," is said to have been one of the things the Aztecs asked people they had conquered in the eastern territories to give them as a gift.

Later, when the Europeans came, vanilla started a long journey. The pods went to Spain, where they were used to make perfumes and to flavor chocolate, just like the native people of Mexico did. Around 1800, the plant went to England, and it later went to French botanical gardens.

Vanilla kept moving from the islands in the Indian Ocean until the middle of the 19th century, when it got to Madagascar, the biggest of all the islands. Much later, the country that is now called the Malagasy Republic became the largest producer of the famous bean in the world.

Vanilla in Mexico

Vanilla planifolia, which is native to Mexico and northern Central America, is the species that is grown the most. This orchid is grown in Mexico, mostly in the humid and warm climate of northern Veracruz (Papantla, Gutiérrez Zamora, Tecolutla, Martnez de la Torre, etc.), which makes almost 95% of all Mexican vanilla. Oaxaca and Puebla are also producing states, but they only have a few cultivated hectares. However, in Usila, Oaxaca, there is an interesting plan for growth.

In Mexico, different "tutors," which are living trees that the orchid climbs up and rests on, have been used. Small trees like the cocuite, pichoco, and chaca have been used as tutors for a long time. Now, the orange tree is also being used as a tutor, and farmers in the municipality of Martinez de la Torre say it is a great help.

Vanilla needs a lot of care to grow. "Vanilla is jealous," farmers say, and "people walking by all the time can hurt it." You also have to watch out for diseases, put the organic matter at the base of the plant so that its roots can get good food, and be careful to pollinate it when the flower opens..." Because this crop needs to be hand-pollinated for fruits to grow.

The plant blooms in March or April. The flowers grow in groups called "pots," and each plant can make between 10 and 15 pots. The average pot has 10 to 20 flowers, but only one or two bloom each morning and die in the afternoon. The next day, more flowers bloom. Each pot needs to have five or six flowers pollinated to get three or four fruits. Be careful not to use up all the plant's energy, which could make it weak and more likely to get sick.

A presidential order says that the pod can be cut on November 15. This rule is meant to protect growers from having their fruit stolen, but it doesn't mean that this is the best time to pick the fruit. Some processors say that if the pods were left in the orchid for at least 15 days longer, their active ingredient, vanillin, and the other things that affect the flavor of the fruit would increase a lot. This would make the fermentation and drying process, which is part of the processing process, produce better pods. Other people who like vanilla say that the right time to cut it should be set every year.

The market for natural vanilla

Natural vanilla is used in many places, like bakeries, soft drink factories, ice cream factories, at home, in the making of drinks and liquor, etc. The Coca-Cola company is one of the biggest buyers of vanilla beans in Mexico. Coca-Cola, which buys the fruit that is processed in Papantla, directly processes the black pods to make the extract that is used in its concentrates. Other companies, like H. Konhstamm of Mexico, that buy processed pods, but on a much smaller scale, sometimes make and sell natural vanilla extract.

Both the amount of natural extract made and used in Mexico is very low. The price of the pod can't compete with that of other artificial flavorings that use synthetic vanillin, which tastes and smells like vanilla but is made through chemical processes from eugenol (a part of clove essence) or the coniferin found in some conifers or other things.

New producers like Uganda, Tahiti, and Samoa have entered the market with prices that are so low that they scare traditional exporters and force them to change their strategies.

Still, natural vanilla has a better taste and smell than artificial vanilla, which is why it still has a very specific market. This is the case with some high-end pastry shops that won't use synthetic product and say it's hard to find a suitable extract of the pod made in Mexico.

Some of these professional candy makers prefer to buy the processed pod directly, and because the pod is so expensive, they have started to think of themselves as being connected to the crop. On the other hand, large companies that make cookies, bread, cake, and ice cream do use vanillin which is made in a lab. And that's the synthetic vanillin that gives vanilla flavor to all of Mexico. By the way, it's not made in the country.

On the international market, most of the demand for natural vanilla comes from France, which is known for its sweets, Germany, Canada, Japan, and other countries. However, the United States is the biggest importer, buying more than half of the world's supply to use in the ice cream industry, according to some authors. The tendency of some countries to go back to natural products is a big reason why the fragrant pod is grown.

Vanilla obtained through the application of biotechnology

All of the people who grow vanilla beans are worried about vanilla that has been made using biotechnology. It involves growing vanilla cells in a special solution that is full of nutrients. This would lead to a mass of cells that taste like vanilla.

In this case, vanillin and the other parts of vanilla that make it special could be made in the lab without the hard work of growing and processing the valuable fruit. It looks like research is still being done in this area, but there is no news yet that the results can replace the natural pod. Besides the economic aspect, other advantages should be taken into account.

Vanilla is grown in Mexico in a way that involves living trees and plants. These trees and plants add organic matter to the soil, which keeps it from washing away and refills the aquifers. The vanilla groves, which are forests of trees covered in fragrant orchids, are also home to animals like birds, reptiles, and insects, as well as other wild plants.

Mexico still has the most valuable thing about vanilla, which is its genetic base. When compared to plantations in large producing countries, where diversity is usually made up of only a few clones, Mexico's vanilla plantations could be thought of as large mother orchards.

But it would be very important to encourage the creation of real mother orchards in the country to make sure that the best individuals survive and spread. To protect the genetic diversity of the genus, it is also important to set up germplasm banks that are well taken care of.

Nutrients and benefits of vanilla

Every 100 grams (g) of vanilla provides 51.40 Kcal, 12.7 g of carbohydrates, 28.50 g of fiber, and 0.1 g of protein. It is a source of vitamins B2 and B3, calcium, potassium, sodium, zinc, and magnesium. Since pre-Hispanic times, vanilla was also used as a medicine, since it stimulates the central nervous system, relaxes muscles, relieves stress, improves mood, and helps reduce inflammation and pain.

Vanilla vinaigrette for a citrus salad recipe

Ingredients (4 servings):

1 dash of natural vanilla extract
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 small apple
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
3 chopped walnuts
1 cup Italian lettuce
1 grapefruit
1 orange
4 strawberries
2 kiwis
½ cup panela cheese


Remove the seeds from the apple along with the peel. Blend the apple with vanilla extract, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. Set aside. Disinfect the lettuce, strawberries, and kiwi. Cut the lettuce, strawberries, and kiwi into pieces. Peel and remove segments from the grapefruit and orange. Place the lettuce in the center of the plate or bowl, add the vinaigrette, and toss. Garnish with the remaining ingredients.

Vanilla iced tea recipe

Ingredients (8 servings or glasses):

Lemon tea
2 liters of water
A splash of natural vanilla extract
Mint leaves
1 sliced yellow lemon


Bring the lemon tea to a boil. Let the tea cool completely. Add the dash of vanilla and mix. Add ice. Add the sliced lemon and mint leaves.

Yogurt smoothie with vanilla, oatmeal, and banana recipe

Ingredients (4 servings):

1½ cups skim milk
1½ cup plain yogurt with no sugar added
½ cup oatmeal
1 piece banana
1 tablespoon natural vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder


Blend milk and yogurt in a blender until completely integrated. Add vanilla, oatmeal, and banana. Blend again. Serve and garnish with cinnamon and raisins.