Vanilla’s flavor and fragrance are so pervasive throughout American life, it is often assumed to be a common, easily grown ingredient. However, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. The vanilla bean is the second most expensive spice in the world, second only to saffron, and it is so pricy because it is so difficult and time-consuming to grow and ferment.
Vanilla actually is produced by an orchid (Vanilla planifolia) native only to Central America—the only orchid of approximately 20,000 varieties that bears anything edible. In order to produce the vanilla bean, the orchid needs to be pollinated by stingless Melipona bees, also only found in Central America, and the orchid flower only opens for less than a day. If not pollinated during that time, the flower will fall off and no vanilla beans will be produced.1
Because of this complicated process, hand pollination must be used to produce vanilla commercially. After being pollinated, the flowers develop thin green pods, or beans, that are picked before they are ripe and are then fermented by a process that can last as long as six months. The beans become a dark brown color and develop vanillin, a white crystalline substance on the outside of the pods that provides its flavor and aroma. At this point, they are aged to bring out their full flavor, which can take up to two years.1 This common flavor is not so common at all.