Storified by ebanreb· Fri, Mar 22 2013 20:25:26
Vanilla beans should be a staple in every kitchen. Vanilla beans can be used in many different forms for cooking. With little effort you can make pure vanilla extract out of vanilla beans. With leftover vanilla bean pods you can add a sweet and delicious flavor to sugar. Another great trick is to turn fresh vanilla pods into vanilla paste.
In extract form vanilla is an essential ingredient in cooking. It is used to add a rich, subtle flavor. Vanilla is so versatile that is can be used in treats like cake and ice cream, coffees and hot chocolates, even meat sauces and marinades. Extract is sold in a few different forms: pure vanilla, vanilla and imitation vanilla. For an extract to be called "pure" it must contain a minimum of 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean per gallon. Some chef may use extracts with double, triple or stronger extracts to carry a bolder flavor. Imitation vanilla is a cheap knock-off mad by soaking wood containing vanillin (the source of what you know as the vanilla flavor) in or to pull out the flavor. Imitation vanilla is then chemically treated with 100 or more ingredients to round out the flavor and mimic the taste of natural vanilla.
Vanilla beans originated in Mexico's Mazatlan valley. It flourished in this area with the pollinating help of the Melipona bee. Early attempts to cultivate the vanilla plant outside of this region failed until growers learned they could be pollinated by hand. Now there are several different sub-species of vanilla grown around the world: Bourbon or Madagascar, Mexican, Tahitian, and West Indian vanilla. Other hybrids or cross-breeds are also grown commercially and the Bourbon vanilla plant is also grown in other regions in the world besides the island of Madagascar.
The vanilla plant is normally grown in tropical climates and is extremely labor-intensive. In order to produce vanilla pods the vanilla flowers must be pollinated. Growers must walk their plantations daily looking for open flowers since each flower must be pollinated with 12 hours of opening. With the help of the Melipona bee found in Mexico where vanilla originated the flowers must be hand-pollinated. Care must be taken to only pollinate so 5-6 of the flowers and this only begins the process. The bean must then mature for 9-10 months before it can be hand-harvested which also must be done with similar effort to the pollination. The beans are harvested as the beans begin to split at the end. With such effort it involved it is easy to see why the cost of vanilla beans are high.