Making Vanilla

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The making of vanilla begins six to nine months after the orchid flowers have been pollinated, with green pods 6–10 inches/15–25 cm long that are just beginning to ripen. On the pod’s inner walls, thousands of tiny seeds are embedded in a complex mixture of sugars, fats, amino acids, and phenolic-sugar storage compounds. The enzymes that can liberate the aromatic phenolics from storage are concentrated closer to the outer walls. The first step in curing is to kill the pod so that it doesn’t use up its sugars and amino acids, and to damage the pod’s cells and allow the phenolic storage compounds to migrate to the liberating enzymes. Both of these goals are accomplished by briefly exposing the pods to high temperatures, either in the sun or in hot water or steam. The cell damage that this causes also allows the browning enzymes (polyphenoloxidases) to cluster some phenolic compounds together into colored aggregates, so the pod color changes from green to brown.