Real vanilla is a

If you’re curious to know why these blackish pods, we call vanilla, are so expensive… then keep on reading! We’ll give you an introduction to the science and process of making vanilla to give you an understanding of what goes into the production and why they're sold at such a high price.

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Vanilla Production

The process of getting the final vanilla product is long and arduous, it involves daily vigilance during the “sweating” process (more on that in a moment) and the pollination of the vanilla orchids is done with a long and slender “needle” attached to a stick or rod in order to place the pollen between the anther and the stigma.

Vanilla orchids contain both male parts (anther) and female parts (stigma). The anther creates pollen, while the stigma receives it. Nevertheless, these organs are separated by a thin membrane that prevents the plant from self-pollinating, unless pollinated naturally by bees, or by hand.

This can only be done in a very limited timeframe for each vanilla orchid, as the vanilla orchid blossom, the blossom eventually grows into the bean, only lasts 24 hours and must be pollinated within 8 – 12 hours of opening. If not pollinated in this timeframe, the flower wilts and no vanilla pods/beans can be produced.

The process to get from pollination to final vanilla product as you see it in the store, takes in total 12 – 15 months, depending on the maturation period and drying process. Below we’ve outlined the major steps in the process.

Steps in Vanilla Production

Step 1: Harvest

Vanilla beans are harvested from the flower one by one when they are fully-grown and beginning to ripen (they are not fully matured, as this splits the pod, ruining the product). At this point in time they are a dark green but change to a light green with a slight yellowish tinge. They are also completely odorless.

Vanilla harvest from our producers in Mexico

Step 2: Grading (and sorting!)

It is interesting to note that grading is done exclusively based on the vanillas’ size. This is because there is a direct relationship between vanillin content and aroma, and the length of the vanilla bean.

Step 3: Cleaning and killing

The beans are washed with clean water, and subsequently immersed in hot water at a temperature of approximately 70C for varying periods, depending on the grade of vanilla bean. Total duration of immersion will be somewhere from 1.5 minutes to 5 minutes, where the higher-grade vanilla beans require longer.

Step 4: Sweating and drying

This is a multi-step process, where the treated beans are initially transferred to boxes that are lined with blankets for the first “sweating” process. They are kept in the box for 36 – 48 hours at an initial temperature of around 50 oC. Following this step, the beans are then alternately dried in the sun (or adobo oven in Mexico) from noon – 3 PM and transferred to the sweating box for the night. This process again depends on the grade of the vanilla bean (see tablebelow). Following this process, the beans will have lost around 50% of their initial weight, and the appearance of the beans will start to resemble the final product as consumers know it: shiny dark brown with wrinkles.

Step 5: Slow drying

The process for slow drying will vary from country to country, but for the most optimal outcome, you want to ensure a well-ventilated room maintained at around 35 oC and a humidity of 70%. The length of slow drying then again depends on the grade of the vanilla bean (see table 3). On the completion of the slow drying the bean will have its final appearance, a beautiful supple dark brown shining color with lots of aroma. The final moisture content is normally around 20 – 30%, but again depends on the country, soil, and drying process.

Step 6: Final conditioning

The dried beans are bundled and transferred to boxes (metal, wood, bamboo) lined with wax, where they are kept for a further 2 months. After this process the vanilla bean has shed an additional 3-5% in weight and will have attained its full taste and aroma. The final treated and dried vanilla bean will have lost 70 -85% in weight compared to the fresh green vanilla bean.

Step 7: Creation of vanilla extract

The final step, if one is aiming to make vanilla extract, is then to split the vanilla beans lengthwise and submerge them in alcohol (vodka, bourbon, rum, and more are used around the world). After a period of 8 weeks (give or take) you have beautiful vanilla extract.