The vanilla pod, or vanilla bean, known visually as a long shriveled black bean, is the fruit product of the vanilla orchid. The seeds found inside of the dried pod are used for edible vanilla flavoring and in extracts, as are the pods themselves when ground into a powder.
Vanilla comes from the flowering vanilla orchid, a climbing vine that grows throughout the tropics. Although the plant originated in Mexico, its cultivation has spread around the world and is now produced in primarily in Madagascar.
The vanilla pods, or beans, the long black stems sold in commercial spice markets, are the product left after pollination of the vanilla orchid flower. The bean is the fruit of the flower, and as it dries it opens at the ends and shrivels forming the shiny and curved vanilla pod.
When the pods are dried, they are opened and their small black seeds are scraped from the pod case. These seeds are used in culinary and medicinal purposes. The vanilla seeds are visible when used whole as tiny black specks (such as in French vanilla ice cream).
Vanilla extracts used in cooking are usually alcohol-based solutions used to extract the vanilla flavor out of the bean. Extracts are 35% alcohol by volume.
Vanilla powder is obtained from grinding the actual bean pod along with either sugar or a light starch. The powder contains no alcohol and as it contains actual matter from the whole pod, is believed to maintain a “truer” vanilla flavor.