No serious discussion of orchids would be complete without a recipe on how to make vanilla extract.
The popular flavoring comes from the dried seed pods (commonly called beans) of a rather unusual genus of orchid called vanilla, that grows like a vine and whose flowers are both infrequent and short-lived.
The extract, itself, is surprisingly easy to make once we have the beans which can be purchased on-line or at any high end grocery store. There is no specific number of beans required to make a small batch of extract (the more beans, the stronger the flavor). Most do-it-yourselfers use between three and seven beans.
Bean pricing is variable but never cheap given the high labor costs associated with manually pollinating the flowers, then hand picking and curing the seed pods. Natural disasters and poor harvests often exacerbate the situation. Beans are currently selling for around five dollars each.
Vanilla planifolia is the most widely grown vanilla species but others may be used for flavoring. The Food & Drug Administration allows both V planifolia and V tahitensis in its strict definition of what can be sold in the U.S. as vanilla extract but home brews are exempt from such regulation. There are 110 different species of vanilla throughout the world. Store bought beans rarely identify which species is in the package.
A basic recipe for vanilla extract calls for the beans to be soaked in an inexpensive clear alcohol such as vodka or rum. Both have a weak flavor that won’t compete with the beans. Extract manufacturers typically use a concentration of 35 percent (70 proof) alcohol.
3-7 vanilla beans
8 ounces clear vodka or rum – 70 proof
1 jar with a tight lid
Fill the jar with alcohol. Cut beans as needed to be completely submerged. Secure lid.
Briefly shake every week or two.
Keep at room temperature and out of sunlight.
Notice the brown color seeping from the beans into the alcohol. The liquid gets darker every day.
After two months, the extract is ready to use. But, like a fine wine, the longer it ages, the better. Many home brews go a year or more. Extract is considered 100% done when the color is that of the beans – dark brown.
If this recipe is too easy (two ingredients and a jar), vanilla extract can be taken to the next level. Ardent hobbyists will want to bypass the “buy vanilla beans” step and grow their own.
A word of caution. Growing vanilla beans is not like having an herb garden that’s planted in the spring and ready for picking in the summer.
It may take five years to grow a vanilla vine to maturity. Young plants can be found on-line or from local growers for around thirty dollars.
As the mature vine produces buds, timely pollination is essential since each blossom only lasts half a day.
Then it’s a nine month wait while the seed pods ripen followed by six months of intensive bean curing (halting the ripening, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning).
Total time required – 6 years and 3 months. Any takers?