A Beginner's Guide to Vanilla Beans

by Sidney Stone

Sadly, most home cooks use store bought vanilla extract when they need to amp up a recipe with vanilla flavor. Average grocery store vanilla extract is frequently composed of artificial vanilla flavoring, artificial colorings, corn syrup, etc. If you want to perfume your dishes with the most pure and potent vanilla flavor, the only choice is to use real vanilla beans. If you have never used fresh vanilla beans, do not be intimidated. Sourcing, choosing, storing, and using vanilla beans is actually quite simple.

Types Of Vanilla Beans

The most common types of vanilla beans are Bourbon (Madagascar), Mexican, and Tahitian, although you can find vanilla beans from several other areas including Hawaii, Jamaica, Indonesia, Tongo, and even India. Each variety of vanilla varies in potency, size, and color. Depending on the type of vanilla flavor you are trying to achieve will determine the best variety of vanilla bean to use.

Bourbon vanilla beans are prized for their deep, rich, well-rounded, full-bodied flavor. Bourbon vanilla beans are our preferred vanilla bean here at FoodRap. In our experience, Tahitian vanilla beans have a tendency to smell more flowery and lack the punch of the Bourbon vanilla beans. Mexican vanilla beans used to be considered the best in the world a long time ago, but presently, the quality of them is not always consistent or reliable.

The best thing to do is gather an assortment of samples of each type of vanilla bean and try them. See what you like best. Make your own judgments.

Sourcing Vanilla Beans
If you want to pay a premium price for vanilla beans, go ahead and buy them from your local grocery store. You can pay upwards of $10-$15 for a scant few beans. If you want the best price and superior quality, look around on the internet. There are many reputable merchants offering pounds of high quality vanilla beans at very reasonable prices.

Choosing Vanilla Beans
Regardless of country of origin, premium vanilla beans should be plump and moist, have a robust aroma, and have an oily sheen to them. Additionally, they should be at least 7-8 inches long, or longer. Stay away from vanilla beans that have dried out, have hardly any scent, are too short, or have molded/mildewed.

Storing Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans have a long shelf life and can be kept indefinitely in a dry, dark, cool place, away from the heat of your stove. We keep ours wrapped in wax paper inside an airtight container in our pantry. Other people we know keep theirs in airtight glass jars, which works just as well. Be sure not to put your vanilla beans in the refrigerator. They will become hard, crystallized, and essentially ruined.

Using Vanilla Beans Your vanilla beans can be used in virtually any recipe calling for vanilla. A single vanilla bean is roughly equivalent to 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract. To extract the vanilla beans from the pod, slit the bean lengthwise with a sharp knife. Drag the tip of your knife along the length of the slit pod and scrape out the vanilla beans in one slow single motion. If you don't want to use the tip of your knife, you can also use the tip of a spoon, which works great.

Do not discard the vanilla pod after you have scraped the seeds out. The pod itself contains quite a bit of vanilla-ness and can be shoved into a container of sugar to make vanilla sugar, or into a container of salt to make vanilla salt.

Unique Ways To Use Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans are not just for desserts and baked goods. You can use them in myriad other ways to achieve many uncommon yet delightful flavor combinations. Here are a few ideas to stimulate your senses;

  • Vanilla Sugar
  • If you have done much baking, you are probably familiar with vanilla sugar. It can be purchased (for an excruciatingly high price) in small tea bag sized pouches at some upscale grocery stores. But using your own vanilla beans, you can easily make your own vanilla sugar for a tiny fraction of the price. Whenever you make something that calls for vanilla, just toss your scraped pods into a container of sugar and leave it. That's it! Whenever you have a recipe that calls for sugar, use your vanilla sugar for a wonderful vanilla backbone to whatever you are making. You can use it in cakes, cookies, custards, brulees, cocktails, coffee, tea, etc. The possibilities really are endless.

  • Vanilla Salt
  • Using the same process described above for vanilla sugar, toss your scraped pods into a container of salt and let it sit. For something really unique, use your vanilla salt on seafood, chicken, roasted vegetables, etc. We have even used our vanilla salt on spicy roasted potatoes and it was fantastic.

  • Vanilla Coffee
  • Leave a scraped pod to dry out and harden. It doesn't take too long. Then when it is ready, break it up and put it in your coffee grinder with your coffee beans. Upon brewing, the hot water will release a divine vanilla flavor into your brewed coffee or espresso.

  • Vanilla Iced Tea
  • Immerse a leftover vanilla pod into some freshly brewed iced tea. Let it sit in the tea overnight. The next day, remove the spent pod, pour the tea over ice and serve. Another technique I have used is to make vanilla sun tea in the summer. I have a big glass gallon jug for making sun tea. So, I put the tea bags, water, and leftover vanilla pod in the jug and sit the jug out where it will be exposed to the summer sun all day. Later that night, I take out the tea bags and the pod, pour over some crushed ice, and savor the flavor.

  • Vanilla Balsamic Vinegar
  • Using a bottle of good quality balsamic vinegar, immerse a slit unscraped vanilla bean into the bottle. Recap and shake well. Let it sit for a couple weeks before using. This doesn't give the balsamic vinegar a noticeable vanilla flavor or aroma. It adds a refined backbone that balances the vinegar on the palette and gives it a unique character. Sauteeing mushrooms and onions in vanilla balsamic vinegar is absolutely wonderful.

  • Vanilla Bean Butter
  • Take a 1/2 pound of butter out and let it come to room temperature. Once the butter is ready, put the butter in a bowl. Slit a vanilla bean and scrape the vanilla beans into the butter. Using a small whisk, or a hand mixer, incorporate the vanilla beans into the butter. Form the butter into a log or any other shape you like and put back into the refrigerator to harden. I usually roll mine into a log and cover with wax paper. Then, I just slice off little rounds whenever I want them. Use the vanilla bean butter in cookie dough, in sauces, on seafood, on pancakes, etc.

    Sidney Stone is the editor of FoodRap.com and an enthusiastic personal chef that specializes in artisan breadmaking and pastries.

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