Knowing that I have quite a bit of vanilla to work with, I decided it would be a good idea to research it a bit. I admit that, for most of my life, "vanilla" has been a sweet smelling but often flavorless brown liquid you pour into things because the recipe told you to. I definitely grew up on imitation vanilla, and as an adult I often leave it out of recipes because I can't be bothered to buy more.
The fresh stuff, on the other hand, is a whole different animal (er, plant).
What is Vanilla?You're probably familiar with vanilla from its smell, which is very distinctive and sweet. What you might not know is that it's a relative of the orchid. In fact, it's the only fruit-bearing orchid in the world, and the "vanilla bean" is really its fruit. It grows native in Central and South America, but it quickly migrated its way throughout Europe thanks to being brought home by the Conquistadors. The French were especially fond of its flavor, and vanilla has worked its way into a side variety of dishes.
Vanilla can be a bit tricky to grow. The plants don't mature until they're about three years old, and they only bloom for one or two days. In its native home, it's pollinated by a specific species of bee. Elsewhere in the world, where that bee doesn't live, the plant must be pollinated by hand. Furthermore, the beans must be picked while green and cured before they become edible. This curing process takes months and is quite laborious.
All of this is why you're often hard-pressed to find real vanilla in the store, and why real vanilla beans are so expensive. But the question is: Are they worth it?
What's in "Imitation Vanilla"?Vanilla is an easy flavor to imitate, which is why it goes into so many foods (and, consequently, why it's become synonymous with "plain"), but the imitation doesn't come close to the subtlety and sweetness of the real thing. You'll notice this very fast if you taste a little pure imitation vanilla. It actually tastes very bitter and definitely smells more appealing than it tastes. What's in it, anyway?
As it turns out...a lot of things you probably don't want to eat. Basically, scientists identified the specific chemical that causes its flavor, vanillin, and found ways to get it out of non-vanilla sources, like wood pulp. While I appreciate the spirit of recycling wood pulp from paper plants back into my diet, I think I'll pass.
Oh, and here's a fun fact for you: Many of the items made with "real vanilla" are still flavored predominately by imitation vanilla or vanilla extracts (which contain a lot of chemicals that are synthetically produced or, uh, not vanilla). The characteristic brown flecks often actually come from beans that have already been used to make extracts. In other words, all the flavor has been leached out, leaving behind a very impressive-looking but ultimately flavorless trail.