Home & Garden

Exotic and expensive, true vanilla comes from an orchid that grows on a vine 

Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid? These inconspicuous tropical vines growing up trees and clinging to rocks occur across the globe and are among the most important cultural and economic plants in the world. The commercial species, Vanilla planifolia, produces dozens of edible vanilla beans (really the seed pod), each of which contains thousands of tiny black fragrant seeds.

Known for its enchanting aroma and the flavor it adds to baked goods and silky desserts, vanilla extracts can be found in the grocery store in both organic and imitation forms — and the organic extract is always more expensive. Why? We can find the answers to this on a journey to Indonesia and Madagascar, the world’s largest growers of vanilla orchids.

To produce pure vanilla extract, the beans from V. planifolia are laid out in the hot tropical sun to dry for up to eight months. Once the beans have dried, they are crushed and placed in a mixture of alcohol and sugar to cure and develop their flavors. The aromatics of the beans will infuse flavors into the alcohol and water mixture for several months to make an extract.

Much like wine production, each region and grower imparts its own unique flavor profile.

A pure vanilla extract must be 35% alcohol and use 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of steeping liquid (vanilla extract is the only flavor regulated by U.S. law). The process is labor-intensive, the product is pure and simple, and perfection to be added to a recipe. The average cost of natural (pure) vanilla extract is about $4.50 per ounce.

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Imitation vanilla extract is man-made and similar to organic vanillin. It is artificially produced using a combination of sugar, corn syrup and other sweetening agents; it is much easier to produce in large quantities. It tastes just like real vanilla and is used in more than 95% of our vanilla-flavored food products.

Go ahead and look at the back of your favorite breakfast cereal, cookie or ice cream carton and you will likely see “natural and artificial vanilla” among its ingredients. The average cost of imitation vanilla is about 18 cents per ounce.

Locally, Fairchild’s orchid biologist, Jason Downing, along with University of Florida biologist Alan Chambers, are working to untangle the mysteries of Vanilla orchids and their commercial potential here in South Florida.

With the help of local students, Fairchild is propagating Florida’s native vanilla orchid species that can be used to hybridize with a commercial species to produce new and interesting varieties. Currently, many species of vanilla orchids are growing throughout Fairchild Garden.

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So, now that you’ve done the math on price difference, there’s nothing that can compare to the taste profile of a pure vanilla extract in a recipe. Here is a simple six-ingredient recipe for créme brulee, a creamy custard that will make a dinner complete and satisfy any sweet tooth.


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2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup white sugar

1 pinch salt (optional)

½ vanilla bean

2 eggs

3 egg yolks

4 tablespoons white sugar


1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F and line the bottom of a large baking pan with a damp kitchen cloth.

2. Bring a large pot of water to boil.

3. While water is boiling, combine cream, vanilla bean, 1/4 cup sugar and salt in saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally for 4 to 5 minutes, until steam rises.

4. In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks and eggs until smooth.

5. Pour hot cream into eggs, a little at a time, stirring constantly, until all cream is incorporated. Pour mixture into four 6-oz. ramekins.

6. Place ramekins on towel in baking dish, and place dish on oven rack. Pour boiling water into dish to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover whole pan loosely with foil.

7. Bake 25 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven, until custard is just set. Then chill ramekins in refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours.

8. Before serving, sprinkle 1 tablespoon sugar over each custard ramekin. Use a kitchen torch or oven broiler to brown top for 2 to 3 minutes.

Now grab a spoon, tap gently to break the caramelized sugar top and dig into this creamy, vanilla-specked delight. While you savor it, think about the journey V. planifolia took to get onto your spoon. Enjoy!

This recipe is provided by Fairchild’s pastry chef, Frances Brown, as part of Fairchild’s adult education classes.

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