Vanilla is 2nd-most expensive spice in world, after saffron

Faster, cheaper, tastier: Vanilla guru wants to make the spice nicer

An Israeli professor at Rutgers University aims to disrupt all aspects of production of vanilla, whose expense has soared in recent years

Illustrative image of vanilla pods. (joannawnuk; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of vanilla pods. (joannawnuk; iStock by Getty Images)

When you indulge in a vanilla ice cream cone or drown some vanilla gelato in espresso for the Italian treat known as affogato, you may not realize how much painstaking work is required to extract that flavor from vanilla beans, or pods — and how expensive the process is.

The flavoring, derived from a type of orchid, is the second-most expensive spice in the world, just below saffron. The price of vanilla is currently some $600 per kilogram ($17 per ounce), which makes it more expensive than silver. Commercial quantities of vanilla beans are primarily grown in fields in Madagascar, though the plant is native to Mexico.

To extract the vanilla, beans are picked from the plant and cured, a process that gives them their much-loved characteristic flavor and aroma: they are covered in a blanket for two days, which is called “sweating,” then dried in the sun, then dried some more on racks in ventilated rooms, and finally bundled and stored in airtight containers, according to the Varanarshi Research Foundation.  The process can take up to six months.

An Israeli professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, however, says she has found a way to grow the beans more efficiently in a process that would make them both more tasty and more affordable.

Illustrative image of vanilla manufacturing (pierivb; iStock by Getty Images)

Daphna Havkin-Frenkel, who has been studying vanilla for the last 25 years, promotes growing commercial quantities of the beans in greenhouses or net houses, instead of in the field. Net houses are similar to greenhouses, but offer more artificial shading. With the use of greenhouses and net houses, the beans can be grown even in climates that are not naturally favorable.

The researcher said that the high price of vanilla today is due to speculative farmers who choose to grow smaller quantities of the beans. In addition, she said, vanilla beans are supposed to be picked off the vine after eight or nine months, but impatient farmers looking to make a quick buck pick the beans after four or five months. This makes for poor quality beans, but because of the high demand big flavor companies buy them anyway.

Havkin-Frenkel also developed a method of curing vanilla that she says takes two to three weeks as opposed to six months, preserving the beans’ quality while still getting them to market quickly in accordance with growers’ wishes.

Her curing process uses dehumidifiers instead of natural heat. “We found the perfect temperature to remove the water from the beans, while maintaining all of the flavor,” she said.

Daphna Havkin-Frenkel has studied vanilla for 25 years (Courtesy)

A number of countries around the world have started to use Havkin-Frenkel’s methods. In Holland, for instance, some commercial farmers are growing vanilla in greenhouses with Havkin-Frenkel’s guidance.

Yesod Hama’ala, a rural settlement in the north of Israel, is planning to start growing, curing, and extracting the beans using greenhouses and Havkin-Frenkel’s curing methods, she said. Vanilla needs very little water, which makes it perfect for drought-afflicted Israel, and the process is relatively economical because heating and cooling greenhouses is not very expensive.

The Israeli researcher has also developed a way to check if a vanilla plant is healthy. Since the soil in all growing areas for vanilla has some amount of fusarium, a fungus that attacks vanilla plants and eventually leads to their death, she isolated the pathogen and then used antibody-producing fungi to make antibodie. Before planting the vanilla vine, she dips it into a diluted antibody solution. If there is fusarium in the cutting, it will be illuminated under a UV light.

Dafna Havkin-Frenkel’s vanilla plants growing in Rutgers University greenhouse (Dafna Havkin-Frenkel)

If nurseries buy the antibodies and use them to check if their cuttings have fusarium, they will avoid growing vanilla that will eventually die from the disease, said Havkin-Frenkel.

In 2003, Havkin-Frenkel founded a company, Bakto Flavors, which buys vanilla beans, grinds them, and produces vanilla extract, which it distributes along with other natural products. Her list of customers includes mainly gourmet retailers and food suppliers, she said.

Havkin-Frenkel has also taught classes on vanilla at Rutgers University.

“As a result of my research and promotion of vanilla, other geographical locations have started to grow vanilla… New reliable vanilla and good quality beans will stabilize the market.” said Havkin-Frenkel.

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