Swedes like to use different spices to enhance the flavour of food. Vanilla is a particular favourite, especially with vaniljsås (vanilla sauce) which is served with most fruit based desserts in Sweden.
It is the world's second most expensive spice after saffron, because the plants must be pollinated by hand and the pods must be hand picked on a daily basis.
Despite the expense, vanilla is highly sought-after for its rich, sweet and delicate flavour and aroma. Not only is vanilla used in baking, it is also widely used in perfume manufacture and aromatherapy.
How does it grow?
Vanilla grows on a type of climbing orchid. The word vanilla is derived from the Spanish word vaina, meaning little pod (bean), because it is the only the dried pods (beans) that are wanted from the orchid.
The long, black, thin and wrinkled vanilla pods contain thousands of tiny black seeds, which are used to flavour mainly sweet dishes. Often the seeds are left in the dishes because the presence of tiny black specks in a vanilla-flavoured dish is confirmation that real vanilla has been used.
A 12 year old slave's discovery
At one time vanilla only grew in Mexico and Central America because a special breed of bee (called a Melipona) was required to pollinate it. The big break through came in 1841 when a 12 year old slave, Edmond Albius, who lived on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, discovered that the plant could be hand-pollinated. Hand-pollination allowed cultivation of the orchid outside Central America and continues to this day.
Where does it grow?
The main vanilla growing regions are:
• Madagascar, Réunion and other tropical areas along the Indian Ocean,
• The South Pacific,
• The West Indies and Central and South America.
The majority of the world's vanilla is called Bourbon vanilla (after the former name of Réunion, Île Bourbon) or Madagascar vanilla, which is produced in Madagascar and neighbouring islands in the southwestern Indian Ocean, and in Indonesia.
Harvesting the pods
The vanilla fruit grows quickly on the vine, but it takes at least six months before the pods are ready to pick. Harvesting vanilla fruits is also labour-intensive because each fruit ripens at its own pace and so every pod must be picked by hand just as it begins to split on the end.
The pods are first plunged into hot water and then they are dried in the sun during the day and then wrapped in the blankets at night so they can sweat. This process can last several months until the pods become a very dark brown colour and develop a white crystalline substance (or frost) on the outside of the pod, called vanillin. The vanillin is what gives the pods their wonderful flavour and aroma. Finally, the pods are aged to bring out their full flavour which can take up to two years. Once dried and cured the vanilla pods need to be kept in an airtight container to retain their aroma and flavour.
Quality of pods
Fruits are divided into 3 categories according to their length:
First quality pods are more than 15 cm (6") in length. These are reserved for the gourmet vanilla market and generally sold to top chefs and restaurants.
Fruits between 10 and 15 cm long are classified as second quality and those below 10 cm in length are classified as their quality.
Different forms of vanilla for cooking
Vanilla flavour can be added to dishes in different forms:
• pods - best for flavour, but require more faffing around,
• powder - much cheaper and easier to use, but the flavour is not quite as good,
• paste - a mixture of ground vanilla pods with extra vanilla seeds added,
• extract and essence - popular for baking, but should not be added to hot liquids,
• vanilla sugar - another easy way of adding a hint of vanilla to cakes and biscuits.
Using pods (beans)
Use pods if you want a gentle, subtle flavour of vanilla to infuse through a liquid and to leave behind some seeds.
When choosing pods, look for fragrant, very dark brown, almost black pods that are slightly wrinkled, but still supple, with a slightly oily, shiny surface. Don't be put off by a white "frost" on the surface: it's vanillin, not mould! Alternatively, choose a reliable make such as Ndali. Store the pods in an airtight container in a cool place. They should keep for two years.
To use, split the pod open along its length using a sharp knife and add the whole pod directly to the cooking liquid, allowing time for the flavour to infuse.
Powder is much cheaper and easier to use than pods. One teaspoon is equivalent to one vanilla pod. Powder is ideal to use when:
• making ice creams,
• you want to add a hint of vanilla to chocolate,
• you want the flavour and appearance of vanilla pods, without the expense and time of using pods.
The powder is made by grinding whole dried pods and, since a lot of the flavour is within the skin of the bean, the flavour is almost as good as using pods. When added to liquids and ice creams it looks like vanilla seeds.
Vanilla paste is made in a similar way to vanilla powder but has extra vanilla seeds added. It can be used in a similar way to vanilla powder, but check the details on the jar as the strength varies from one manufacturer to another.
Extract and essence
Vanilla extract is the form used most by bakers. It is produced by steeping the vanilla pods in an alcohol and water solution for several months, often with sugar added. 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract is generally equivalent to 1 whole vanilla pod, but it does vary a bit according to the quality of the extract.
Vanilla essence is an alcohol based product as well, but it is much cheaper than vanilla extract as it uses artificial vanilla instead of, or as well as, vanilla extract. Some people say that the flavour when used in cakes and biscuits (cookies) is just as good as from extract, but others, myself included, think the extra cost of vanilla extract is worth it. Vanilla essence is not normally as strong as vanilla extract, so if you substitute essence for extract in a recipe increase the quantity by 50%.
One thing that is important to bear in mind when using vanilla extract or essence is that it should not be added to hot liquids as the alcohol evaporates, along with some of the vanilla flavour.
Vanilla sugar is easy to make: simply cut a vanilla pod in half crossways, pop it into a jar, add 250 g (1 cup) of caster (superfine) sugar and leave for a month or so for the flavour to infuse. Every time you use some of the vanilla sugar top up the jar with more caster sugar and it will last for years. Alternatively, you can buy ready-made vanilla sugar at most supermarkets and avoid the wait!
One tablespoon of vanilla sugar has the flavouring power of about ¼ teaspoon of vanilla essence.
A good vaniljsås (vanilla sauce) has a wonderful subtle flavour. It is frequently served with fruit desserts in Sweden, especially with pies where it is assumed to be the natural partner. Vaniljsås also often makes an appearance at fika (coffee and cake break time) if a fruit based cake is served, so most cafés will have a jug of vanilla sauce handy.
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