Whether you’re just interested to know more about vanilla beans before you buy them, or you simply want to understand how vanilla beans are cured, this article will outline the four steps in detail for you.
How are vanilla beans cured?
There are four key stages in the curing process for vanilla beans. When they come off the vine, they aren’t wonderfully shiny and black. Initially, they begin life as green in color, and as they become ripe, their tips begin to yellow. It’s at this point they start to become a little loose from their core mother plant.
Unlike fruits and other berries, Vanilla will stop ripening at the moment it gets picked. Without being left to ripen naturally, the beans will not become the true Vanilla as we all know and love it. When Vanilla ripens, it happens when changes to the humidity and temperature trigger specific enzymes within the bean. At this point, these enzymes will convert the pectin and starches into sugars. The cell walls of the pod will soften, the chlorophyll will start to break down, and this is when the yellowing of the fruit will occur.
If this process is interrupted, the development of the flavors will be prohibited. All that results will be a slightly bitter, sour fruit.
As soon as the Vanilla is ripe, the four core phases of curing can commence.
Phase 1 – Dipping
A Master Curer will perform the dipping process, and they will do their calculations purely by feel. Within no longer than three days following their harvest, the vanilla beans will be submerged in water for between 10 seconds and 3 minutes. The temperature of the water needs to be between 150-170 degrees Fahrenheit. The exact timing will depend entirely on the size of the beans, the water temperature, and whether or not the pods split on the vine.
The process of dipping will essentially ‘kill’ the bean and prevent any further growth. It initiates the process of enzyme release, which starts the vanillin production, which is the primary flavor component of the bean. At this point, glycovanillin is converted into vanillin.
Phase 2 – Sweating
Immediately after the beans are taken from the water, the workers will tightly wrap them in wool blankets. They are then stored inside a dark, airtight container. Speed is of the essence, as the swift and rapid actions will help to preserve the steam and heat.
Both the heat and the steam will trigger more enzymes. This time, these enzymes will enable the conversion of starches and cellulose to vanillin, along with other complex components that are responsible for giving Vanilla its wonderfully subtle aroma.
During the sweating phase of curing the vanilla beans, all of the beans will remain tightly wrapped for a period of up to two weeks. Throughout this period, it is vital the beans are kept warm. If there is any cooling, this could be responsible for triggering the development of mold. Due to the fact vanilla is cured throughout the rainy season, it does present obvious issues. The curers combat this issue by laying the rolls out in the sun, then return them to their container when the rain clouds are looming.
Once the vanilla beans develop better moisture content, they are left out in the sunshine, exposed to the air throughout the day, and then rolled up at night. This exposure to the sun during the daytime is fundamental to the transformation of the flavor and in the essential prevention of mold formation on the vanilla beans.
The process of unrolling and rolling the vanilla beans will continue for a period of up to two months.
Phase 3 – Drying
This stage of curing the vanilla beans occurs when the beans are still quite wet. As soon as the beans start to develop an aroma and they reach the correct moisture level, this is when the drying phase will start. The drying process is vital to enable international shipping, and it lasts for anything between 3-4 weeks. This is because a wet bean will only develop mold while it is being shipped.
To begin, the vanilla beans will be set-out to dry in the open air. They will be moved between the shade and the sun in order to drive out any residual moisture. If they are exposed to too much sunlight, there is a risk they will become over-dry. If this occurs, it will destroy the vanillin, rendering them useless and unable to be used. In order to prevent this, the vanilla beans need to be closely monitored and arranged by their moisture content. The optimal goal is to achieve a moisture content of between 25-30%.
The workers will actually massage each bean individually by hand to ensure a consistent drying is taking place.
Phase 4 – Conditioning
By stage four in the curing process, the vanilla beans are quite literally bursting with flavor, and they’re nearly ready. At this point, they are put into closed boxes, which are lined with wax paper. They are held in these boxes for at least one month in order to further enhance and preserve their aroma.
Usually, vanilla beans are shipped during this phase before the full conditioning is complete. This is due to the fact their boxes are their final form of storage.
After at least one month, the box is ready to be opened. The vanilla beans will have been fully developed and will now appear to be black and shiny, with a very light coating of natural oil. In some circumstances, when everything has been done just right, the vanilla beans will form a delicate coating of white vanillin crystals.
As you can appreciate, there are many moving parts to the process of curing vanilla beans. Knowing the right temperature, getting the timings right, establishing if the beans are warm enough, dry enough, or if they’re too wet are all questions that the master curer and their workers will work tirelessly to answer. If things go wrong and the beans become moldy, they will be rendered useless, and an entire nine months’ work could be destroyed.
The end result, when everything goes just right, is perfectly formed, wonderfully smelling vanilla beans.