How To Open and Use a Vanilla Bean

Cooking Lessons from The Kitchn

There's something special about going the extra mile and adding fresh vanilla to your recipes, especially when vanilla is the primary flavor. Many recipes call for scraping the vanilla pod of its seeds, a process that is simple but can get messy and wasteful. Read on for our no-fuss method for scraping the seeds from a vanilla bean — and what to do with the pod afterwards.

Vanilla pods are the fruit of the vanilla orchid, usually Vanilla planifolia, which is the main species of orchid cultivated for vanilla. The pods are picked green and the subjected to a lengthy process that involves drying, curing and aging, which can take several months to complete. Because of this, vanilla beans are one of the most expensive spices in the world, second only to saffron which also shares its origins in an orchid. (Correction: Saffron is made from the stigmas of a specific crocus (Crocus sativus), which is a member of the Iridaceae (Iris) family. Many thanks to our commenter, apium, for this correction!) So when that precious vanilla pod comes your way, it's best to take special care and use every bit!

Be sure to purchase fresh, plump, moist vanilla pods and use them as soon as possible. If you aren't going to use them right away, store them in an airtight container. Do not try to scrape the seeds from a dried-out pod. If your pod has dried out before you could get to it, you can still grind it and use the resulting powder to flavor your dishes (see Notes below).

How to Prep a Whole Vanilla Bean

What You Need

Fresh, plump, soft vanilla pod

Equipment
Small, sharp paring knife
Smooth-surfaced cutting board
Small hook or pushpin (optional)

Instructions

1. Split the pod lengthwise into two halves: Assemble your cutting board, knife, and vanilla pod. I like to use the little hooked area of the pod as a handle, anchoring the pod to the cutting board with my non-dominate hand. This helps you to maneuver the pod without getting your fingers full of the precious vanilla seeds. Starting as close to the hook as possible, firmly run the tip of the paring knife down the length of the pod. You may need to repeat this step if the pod didn't completely split on the first try. Try to follow your original cut when doing this to produce two halves of the pod, joined at the top by the little hook.

2. Scrape the pod halves: Still holding the hooked area down on the cutting board, run the unsharpened side of your knife down the length of each of the pod halves, using firm pressure. I sometimes find that the sharp side of the knife can puncture the pod and pull up too many fibers along the way, creating a lot more mess then necessary. The dull side works perfectly to carefully but thoroughly scrape the seeds.

3. Use the seeds and save the pod! Go ahead and add the seeds to your recipe but don't throw away the pod! If your recipe requires a liquid, you can add the pod to the liquid to steep, further enhancing the vanilla flavor. This works especially well if the liquid has been heated. See notes below for other ways to use your vanilla pod.

Notes:
• You can also make vanilla sugar by adding the split and de-seeded pod to a canister of sugar, sealing it well, and letting it sit at least two weeks. The pod can remain in the sugar indefinitely and you can just add additional pods as you use them.

• The used pod can also be added to a bottle of alcohol such as vodka or rum to make vanilla extract. Since it isn't a fully stocked pod, the resulting vanilla won't be strong enough, so just continue to add your spent pods to reinforce the flavor. Time and continuous additions of used pods will boost the vanilla. Or you can add a split, unscraped bean if you want to move things along a little

• One of my favorite things to do is to thoroughly dry the pod until it is hard and then break it up in a clean spice grinder. Grind until a fine powder is created and use this in baked goods to boost the vanilla flavor.

• I also like the seed extraction method shown in the video below. The difficulty with this method is that the pod needs to soak up the alcohol for a couple of weeks, so you would have to plan ahead. Perhaps you could try this during the holidays when you know you will be using a lot of vanilla. I do not know if the pods will last indefinitely sitting in the alcohol, so I'm not sure if you could just keeping them hanging around like this until needed. Has anyone tried it?


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(Images: Dana Velden)

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Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.

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