Making Life Delicious Since 1983

The “Why” of a Vanilla Shortage

Look in your cupboard. Go ahead, I’ll wait here… It’s most likely that you have a small brown bottle, the label stained from brown liquid dripping down the side when you have poured it. Vanilla Extract.

With the Christmas season fast approaching which includes cookies, cakes, pies, and even more sweet treats, I hate to be the bearer of troublesome news. All our suppliers point to a large and looming vanilla bean shortage, and large price increases. Which means less vanilla extract.

Why? It all comes down to people eating better, more natural foods.

First, what is “vanilla”? Vanilla is a rather unique food and one of the most labor intensive foods produced. It’s native to Mexico, where the flowers are naturally pollinated by birds and insects. It begins as a seed pod for an orchid plant. It’s harvested and through a lengthy combination of rinsing, drying, sweating- it becomes sweet and mellow and delicious over time. It takes weeks to go through the transformation from the ugly duckling green pod to brown swan. I had fresh vanilla ice cream in Tahiti years ago and the memory still haunts me as one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. Fresh island cream, sugar, and island vanilla- seems like yesterday that I was standing with that cone in my hand, tropical breeze swaying my skirt.

photo credit: NPR

The market shifted to Madagascar, who has been growing 80% of the worlds vanilla. The native pollinators don’t exist there. So it has to be done by hand. It’s so labor intensive to grow it, and the prices went low, so many farmers abandoned their farms, not able to turn a profit.

This brings us to the second factor in today’s vanilla crisis. During that period of low prices, a lot of food companies were content to use a synthetic version of vanilla. This factory-made version is composed of a single chemical compound, vanillin, which is the main flavor compound in natural vanilla. Synthetic vanillin is much cheaper than natural vanilla. On the list of ingredients of, say, packaged cookies, it may show up as vanillin or simply “artificial flavors.” But consumers are now avoiding foods with artificial flavors. About three years ago, several huge companies, including Nestle and Hershey’s, announced that they were shifting to natural ingredients. That means they now want vanilla from orchid seeds, not factories.

The problem is, there aren’t enough vanilla-producing orchids. A bag of vanilla beans in Madagascar now costs more than 10 times what it did five years ago. I was just at a Hawaiian vanilla farm two weeks ago and they concurred about the lengthy growing time and the world-wide shortage going on.

The craze is expected to end eventually. Farmers in Madagascar now are rebuilding vanilla plantations as quickly as they can, but it takes four or five years before those orchids start producing seeds. But this past March, there was a big setback: A cyclone hit Madagascar, destroying perhaps a third of the crop, pushing prices up even more. Vanilla pods are so precious, theft has even become a major problem. Farmers are so worried about their crops being stolen directly from their fields that they are harvesting the beans much too early. For vanilla lovers, it’s doubly bad news. Not only are vanilla beans scarce and expensive, the quality is generally quite poor, too. The shortage is expected to last a couple of years, while we all wait for more vanilla beans to grow.

So, what do to? You might want to stock up on real vanilla extract where you can still get it. Vanilla extract is made with alcohol. It’s not going to expire or go “bad”.

Secondly, make your own! Take an empty clean bottle that has a tight-fitting lid. Split a vanilla bean down the center and put it in the bottle. Now fill up the bottle with rum or vodka..even bourbon. Replace the cap tightly and store in a cool, dark place for a couple of months. Viola! You have vanilla extract! As the extract is used up, add more alcohol to top off the bottle and store again.

Other options include using maple syrup as a substitution, or ½ the required recipe amount listed for Almond Extract.

Not to scare you, but there are only 70 days till Christmas- which includes Christmas cookies with butter and love, and hopefully, vanilla!

Vanilla Brine for Pork

  1. Combine all marinade ingredients until salt and sugar is dissolved. Cook to 45 degrees in the refrigerator.
  2. Submerge the chops in the brine mixture- which should be in a large bowl or pot for 4-6 hour. If necessary, put a large plate on top to ensure the chops are completely immersed.
  3. Remove chops from brine and bring to room temperature. Pat dry and grill.

(Can be used for pork tenderloins or bone-in chops- just marinade 2 hours longer)


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