Though flashier flavors might get more attention, vanilla is a true kitchen workhorse, lending its flavor to everything from ice cream to baked goods. But despite its humble reputation, vanilla is actually one of the most prized ingredients in the world, with a fascinating history.


Vanilla was first cultivated by Mesoamericans, and Spanish conquistadors likely brought it back to Europe (along with vanilla’s frequent companion: chocolate).


For years, vanilla was mainly thought of only as an additive for hot chocolate or coffee. In the 17th Century, an English apothecary introduced vanilla as a distinct flavor in a variety of concoctions, and soon Queen Elizabeth I was a fan.


The popularity of vanilla spread to France, who began using it in ice cream. One noteworthy fan of this French delicacy was none other than Thomas Jefferson, who frequently served it to guests, and whose hand-written recipe is held by the Library of Congress.


If you’ve ever glanced at a vanilla bean’s price tag at the grocery store and done a double-take, you may not be surprised to know that vanilla is the second-most expensive spice (after saffron). What makes vanilla so valuable?


For starters, the vanilla plant is quite finicky. The bean (which isn’t actually a “bean,” but a fruit) is produced by one species of orchid, which must be pollinated within 24 hours of blooming. It then takes around six months for the fruit to reach maturity, after which the pods must undergo a labor-intensive curing and drying process. Altogether, it can take a year to produce a vanilla bean that’s ready for export.


So, if vanilla is so rare and difficult to produce, why does it seem to be everywhere?


Well, most of the “vanilla” we consume isn’t really vanilla. Vanilla gets much of its distinctive aroma from the chemical compound vanillin, which can also be extracted from other, less precious sources. Today, synthetic vanillin is far more common than true vanilla, making up more than 99% of vanilla-flavored products.


If you'd like to try your hand at making your own, check out our vanilla extract recipe.