Updated: Oct 9, 2021
Vanilla is obtained from the female sex organ of an orchid. vine and it the only edible member of the orchid family. The word vanilla is derived from the Spanish word for “vagina” or “sheath” and was inspired by the sheath-like shape of the vanilla pod. One French chef told the Washington Post, "it's the sexiest thing you can have."
More specifically vanilla comes for the ripe fruit, or pod of a climbing tropical vine with a long fleshy green stem. The pods, often erroneously called beans, are produced by yellow and orange flowers that grow in bunches and bloom at a rate of one a day for a two month period. The vanilla flavor and aroma comes from a chemical called vanillan. It is found mostly in the seeds and oily liquid surrounding the seeds in the pod.
Vanilla is the world's most expensive spice after saffron and cardamom. The fermented fruit contains one to three percent vanillan. In some high quality vanilla pods you can be seen crystalized vanillan on the surface in the form of tiny white needles. About 130 other compounds have been identified in vanilla extract. Vanillas also contains water (35 percent), sugars (25 percent), fat (15 percent), cellulose (15 to 30 percent) and minerals (6 percent). In addition to being a used in ice cream it is also an essential ingredient for cola drinks, cakes and some perfumes.
There are 150 members of the vanilla orchid family but only two types---Bourbon and Tahitian are used commercially. Vanilla from Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros Islands is referred to as the Bourbon type. It has an intense, balanced and somewhat dark’ flavor and aroma. Mexican vanilla (a Bourbon type) is softer and has a fresher aroma but is less valued than the Bourbon type. Tahiti vanilla comes from a different but closely related species. It has a more of a floral aroma.