True vanilla comes from the pod of a climbing orchid vine native to Central America. The pods are picked when green, at which stage they have no flavour, then left to sweat and dry in the sun, causing them to shrivel, turn deep brown and acquire a light coating of small, white vanillin crystals. True vanilla is expensive, partly because of the labour–intensive methods of obtaining it and partly because the flowers are hand–pollinated on the one day of the year that they open. Good–quality vanilla pods have a warm, caramel vanilla aroma and flavour, and should be soft, not hard and dry. Bury a pod in a jar of sugar and let the flavours infuse the sugar, or infuse the whole pod in hot milk and use for custards and ice cream. For extra flavour, use the tip of a knife to slice down the pod to allow some of the tiny, potently flavoured seeds to escape. Vanilla is sold as pods or distilled into pure vanilla extract (or essence). In both these forms, vanilla is quite expensive. Synthetic or imitation vanilla flavouring is now available and this must be labelled as such. It is cheaper and the flavour is inferior.
Also known as — vanilla bean