Vanilla beans are magical. Not only do they look like fairy wands and have an aroma that always brings me to a standstill, but these beans have the ability to transform scoops of ice cream into childhood memories and dishes of crème brûlée into marriage proposals. They are definitely not to be squandered or taken for granted. Let's talk about how to make the most of a vanilla bean when you have a recipe that calls for one.
Why Vanilla Beans Are So Special
Vanilla beans are the fruits of a few very particular kinds of orchids, and they require special growing conditions and careful handling to thrive. Once harvested, the pods also have to be dried, cured, and then aged — all before becoming the baking ingredient we know and love.
This means that real, whole vanilla beans are one of the most expensive spices in our cupboards. But vanilla beans return the favor by providing us with such rich, intense aromas and flavors in our baked goods. They're a special ingredient, but worth it.
Buy Plump, Glossy Vanilla Beans
If possible, buy your beans where you can see them and feel them through the packaging. Look for the plump vanilla beans that look glossy on the outside and bend a little when you touch them. Beans that are desiccated, dull-looking, or brittle are too old and it will be very hard to scrape out the beans inside.
Store Vanilla Beans Away from Heat or Light
Store vanilla beans at room temperature away from heat or sunlight, like in a cupboard. If you have leftover unused vanilla beans after opening the package, store them in a plastic bag with the air pressed out or in a vacuum-sealed bag.
As tempting as it might be to stash vanilla beans away for a special occasion, they are best when used within a few weeks of buying them. Beans will slowly dry out over time, even if kept sealed in their original packaging, so use them while they're still at their best.
Using Real Vanilla Beans in a Recipe
Wait to scrape the seeds out of the vanilla pod until you're ready to use them. They can be mixed right in along with the rest of the ingredients — no other preparation required. When you serve your recipe, you'll see the tiny black flecks of vanilla bean dispersed throughout.
One vanilla bean is roughly equivalent to about 3 teaspoons vanilla extract, so if you're substituting one for the other, you may only need part of a vanilla bean to make a recipe calling for extract — this said, a little extra vanilla bean generally doesn't hurt! The extra seeds will give your recipe a warm, rich, fully infused vanilla flavor.
Use Your Vanilla Pods!
For baking, we're usually most interested in the tiny seeds inside the vanilla pod, but the pods themselves have a lot of flavor, too. You can use the scraped-out pods to infuse milk or cream with subtle vanilla flavor, or you can stick them in a jar of sugar to make vanilla-scented sugar. You can get some life out of any forgotten, dried-out pods unearthed from your cupboard in these ways, as well.
Recipes That Make the Most of a Vanilla Bean
Look for the plump vanilla beans that look glossy on the outside and bend a little when you touch them.
How To Scrape the Seeds from a Vanilla Bean
What You Need
1 vanilla bean
- Split the vanilla bean down its length using the paring knife.
- Scrape out the seeds: Working with one half at a time, hold down the tip of the bean against the cutting board. Use the dull side of your paring knife — not the sharp side — and scrape the vanilla beans from the pod. Move from the tip of the pod, where you are holding it, and scrape down the entire length.
- Use the seeds immediately: The scraped seeds can be mixed right into your recipe along with the other ingredients. Use them right away.
- Use the empty pod: The scraped-out pods can be used to infuse milk or cream with subtle vanilla flavor, or you can stick them in a jar of sugar to make vanilla-scented sugar.
- Store unused vanilla beans: Store unused pods in a plastic bag with the air pressed out or in a vacuum-sealed bag. Use within a few weeks; the pods will gradually dry out over time.
This post has been updated — first published December 2012.
(Image credits: Leela Cyd)