Vanilla Beans: A Tasty Treasure

By: Emily Wolter

As part of a Food Ingredient Technology class, we took a field trip to a flavor manufacturing facility. It was sort of like walking into Willy Wonka’s world. Everywhere we went, a different aromatic seemed to dominate the air. Down one hallway would smell like a gummy bear..turn the corner and you can almost taste chocolate…walk into the next room and see cigarette flavoring (I kid you not). But my favorite stop was at the R&D test kitchens, which comes as no surprise to anyone that knows me. The R&D scientists offered us some food products that utilized their flavors and then provided us with the pure flavors to sniff and see if we could draw any sort of parallel between the food product and the pure flavor. It was a great experience. As everyone was leaving, I was part of a small group of 4 or 5 that was chatting it up with the R&D scientist, trying to rack his brain as much as possible before we had to leave. As our teaching assistant was calling us to head out, the R&D scientist reached over to a bundle of vanilla beans that we had been using before as an aromatic reference and handed each of us 4-5 vanilla beans and sent us on our way. As poor food science grad students, this was quite the present!!

If you have never encountered a true vanilla bean, let me tell you that the aromatics they release are just fantastic! Granted, each variety of vanilla beans will have different characteristics based on their origin and fermentation process. There is definitely not just ONE vanilla extract, as the grocery store might lead you to believe. And for food manufacturing facilities that employ flavor extracts, the variety of vanilla flavors is endless.

Recently on, they published a post entitled “All About Vanilla”; perfect timing for me to get to know my newfound treasure a bit better. It talks about storing the beans, how they are grown, and the different forms in which you can purchase vanilla.

I am holding on to my beans, debating the perfect recipe that I want to use them in. Should I scrape out the seeds and whip up some delightful baked goods or should I soak the beans in some vodka and relish in the goodness of homemade vanilla extract (This would make great holiday gifts!)?

After searching on for vanilla beans, I found that you can purchase a bundle of some varieties for a little over a dollar a piece per bean. You can find them in some grocery stores and specialty stores, as well.

Have you ever explored the world of vanilla beans?

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Science Meets Food

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