The Only Type of Orchid Consumed as Food: Vanilla

The Only Type of Orchid Consumed as Food: Vanilla

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is a type of orchid and the only orchid used for food purposes due to its scent. In the global market, vanilla is the third most used spice after saffron and cardamom. [1] The vanilla fruits are generally bright black, flat sticks that get thinner at both ends. Its flowers can be white or cream-like. Its smell is unique, bitter in taste, and its length varies between 15 and 20 cm.

Mexico, Madagascar, India, and Indonesia are the major countries engaged in vanilla cultivation. This plant, which is very demanding to cultivate, does not have the known intense aroma just after their harvest. Its aroma is retained by a series of processes. 

It is impossible to talk about a uniform vanilla type. There are differences in taste and smell, depending on factors such as soil structure and climate type. They are named according to the region where it is grown. The different varieties can be exemplified by Bourbon (Madagascar) vanilla, Mexican vanilla, Indonesian vanilla, Indian vanilla, Tahitian vanilla, Papua New Guinea vanilla, Central American (Guadeloupe) vanilla. The most successful one in the world in terms of flavor is Bourbon (Madagascar) vanilla.

Vanilla is frequently preferred to be used in bakery products, yogurts, confectionery, breakfast cereals, cosmetics, medicine, and beverage making. [3] The use of vanilla seeds is limited to ice cream, custard decoration, and dessert making. [1]

What is a vanilla stick, how is it used?

When the vanilla seeds are planted in the soil, they are wrapped in the trees planted with them in 6-12 months and become a vine after three years. 5-6 flowers emerge from a vanilla vine. The number of flowers can increase up to 12 overtime. It is harvested within 6-9 months. The harvested vanilla is green in color and not rich in aroma. After the harvest, the drying process begins. The famous aroma of vanilla is achieved by drying. The drying process consists of 5 steps: bleaching (withering), fermentation, sun drying, drying, and maturation. As a result of these steps, 20% of the vanilla weight before harvest is lost. [2]

Bleaching: Sun, oven, etc. could be used to bleach the vanilla along with freezing and bleaching with scratching.

Fermentation: Vanilla is fermented in wooden boxes wrapped in thick covers for 48 hours and matured in taste, color, and odor.

Sun Drying: Vanilla is taken out of the boxes, kept under the sun for 1 to 3 hours, and put in the boxes by wrapping them up again. This process is continued with 10-20 repetitions.

Drying: It is kept in a closed place for 4-6 weeks. If it does not dry as much as desired, the drying stage is completed by oven-drying.

Maturation: At the end of the drying phase, vanilla has its specific taste and aroma, and its color is dark brown. Vanilla sticks, separated by size, would be kept for more than 8 weeks after packaging. [2]

What is vanilla extract, and how is it used?

Spices are foods low in calories due to their biological properties. It is possible to consume the extract parts by using methods such as brewing, boiling, soaking. [2]

Vanilla must have a full body to obtain the vanilla extract. However, Central American (Guadeloupe) vanilla doesn't have a full body. Therefore, it is mostly used in the perfume and tobacco industry.

Vanilla extract helps relieve fatigue, improve mood, and reduce complaints such as nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment. It is frequently used in aromatherapy. [1]

So what's the difference between vanillin and vanilla?

Vanillin is the main active ingredient of vanilla, which can be obtained naturally or artificially from the vanilla plant. The amount of vanillin in the dried vanilla sticks is limited to 2%. Due to the low percentage, manufacturers have tried to obtain the vanilla flavor artificially. While vanilla is a dried spice using natural methods and is quite intense in the aroma, vanillin is an artificial product with a white powder structure that can be obtained from waste sulfate by chemical means. [4]


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[1] Itzamná Baqueiro-Peña, José Ángel Guerrero-Beltrán,”Yüksek değerli lezzet moleküllerini geri kazanmak için vanilya ( Vanilla planifolia Andr.), Kalıntıları ve diğer endüstriyel yan ürünler: Bir inceleme”, Tıbbi ve Aromatik Bitkiler Uygulamalı Araştırma Dergisi,syf. 1-9,Cilt 6,2017.

[2] Bilal Deveci, Serkan Türkmen, Cevdet Avcıkurt, ”Vanilya baharatı ve kullanım alanları üzerine bir araştırma”, International Journal of Human Sciences, 2016.

[3] Hafsa Ahmad, Rasheed Ahmad Khera, Muhammad Asif Hanif, Muhammad Adnan Ayub, Muhammad Idrees Jilani, ”Bölüm-48 Vanilya”, Güney Asya İyileştirici Bitkiler, syf.657-669, 2020.

[4] Bilal DEVECİ, Bahar DEVECİ,”Vanilya ve Vanilin ile İlgili Bilgi Düzeyinin Belirlenmesi: Gastronomi ve Mutfak Sanatları Öğrencileri Üzerine Bir Araştırma”,2018.