As a baker, I covet vanilla beans. The sight of them makes me giddy, their scent is something otherworldly, and the little black flecks they leave in cakes, pastries and custards when they’re baked up golden brown is truly a sight to behold. To put it mildly, they are simply divine. But their price tag is something else entirely. Vanilla beans are the second most expensive spice in the world, only after saffron. Even a tiny jar of real vanilla extract can run you a couple dollars an ounce, but most people don’t understand, and can’t justify, the high price. I wanted to get to the bottom of the dollars signs associated with these beauties, so I did some digging, and was completely intrigued with what I found.
The Orchid, where a vanilla bean begins
I can’t promise that after reading this you won’t still gasp slightly the next time you’re paying for a small vial of the magical beans, but you just might feel a little bit better about your vanilla bean consumption – price tag not included.
Vanilla beans are one of the most labor-intensive crops grown in the world. They come from celadon-colored orchids, the only known orchid variety that has any edible product. This particular orchid is native to Central America, and for many years wasn’t able to sustained in other parts of the world. In order for the orchid to produce a bean, it must first be pollinated by bees, and not just any bees – but the Melipona bees – and also a species of hummingbird. Not surprisingly, those species are also native to Central America.
Green vanilla bean pods, growing from the orchid plant
As if this limited pollination process wasn’t difficult enough, the flowers on this particular type of orchid are only open for a very short time, so ensuring that the proper bees would pollinate the proper plants in the limited time frame that they’d be open was almost an impossible formula to rely on. Eventually “hand pollination” came into play, which provided the opportunity to produce vanilla beans commercially. Where beans were once only grown in Central America, they are now grown in tropical countries all around the world, which makes them more plentiful, though their production process is still slow and laborious.
Vanilla beans in their drying phase
The vanilla bean itself – actually a seed-pod – is the fruit of a thick green vine that grows from the orchid plant. In the wild, these vines will grow to the tops of the tallest trees, but when commercially produced they’re pruned for easier management. When the vines stop growing, they produce clusters of orchid flowers, which once hand-pollinated will produce the vanilla bean pods themselves. It can take anywhere from 1-3 years for an orchid plant to produce beans, and even then there’s still plenty of time left before they hit the shelves at your local market. The beans go through a fermentation process, which can last anywhere from 2-6 months, and then they are aged for up to two years to achieve maximum flavor.
While the process is indeed daunting and incredibly time-consuming, it is machine-free, and entirely hands-on. Though not necessarily labeled as such, the process is almost entirely organic, because it’s all done by hand without the necessity for chemicals. With the extreme attention, care and time given to each individual bean, it’s no wonder we pay a premium for them! Also no wonder why we love them so – there’s nothing else in the world like them.
The final product - a vanilla bean ready for use!