Most home bakers rely on vanilla extract as a flavor component to their cakes and cookies, but little do they know what they are missing until they trade in their extract for whole vanilla beans. The rich complexity and different notes of flavor of a true vanilla bean are often washed out and distilled into a one-note sweetness, especially if the extract is cheap or imitation. If you want to get more serious about baking, you need to get serious about using vanilla beans.
Before you head to the store to purchase some, let's talk about what to look for in vanilla beans and how to use them.
Most chain supermarkets carry vanilla beans in the spice isle. You can also purchase them from online markets (such as Amazon). A good vanilla bean should appear plump and shiny. It should have a thin, dark brown skin and be easily bendable. If a bean is too old, it will be dry, dull, and brittle.
Unfortunately, they are one of the most labor-intensive and time-consuming crops to grow. Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid variety and can take up to three years to flower. Additionally, vanilla crops are pollinated and processed by hand. All of these add up to a heftier price tag—and is a large part of the reason why vanilla extract is a much more popular choice in recipes.
Whole vanilla beans should be stored in an airtight container at room temperature, away from light. Do not store them in the fridge, as the excess moisture will lead to mold growth. Just like fruits and vegetables, vanilla beans are best when they are used fresh. However, the shelf life can extend to about 6-8 months when stored properly.
In order to utilize a vanilla bean, the bean itself must be split, then scraped of its seeds. These precious seeds contain that magical, addictive flavor that makes almost every baked good that much better.
- Split the vanilla bean. Use the tip of your knife to cut into the surface, then drag the blade down the length of the bean.
- Scrape the vanilla bean. Position the tip of your knife at an angle and drag it through the inside of the vanilla bean to scrape the seeds out. You may need to run the knife through the pod a few times to ensure that all the seeds have been picked up.
- Use the seeds immediately. Vanilla bean seeds may be substituted for vanilla extract in any recipe. One vanilla bean is equivalent to about 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract. If a recipe only calls for one teaspoon of vanilla extract, slice the seed in thirds and only split and scrape one-third of the bean, while storing the remaining two-thirds. Once the seeds are scraped, they must be used immediately and can no longer be stored.
Waste not, want not—especially when it comes to an expensive ingredient like vanilla beans. Thankfully, there are myriad ways to use scraped vanilla pods after the seeds have been extracted.
- Dry them in a jar with sugar or sea salt to use in or as a topping for dessert recipes.
- Add them to an existing bottle of vanilla extract or make your own.
- Grind them with coffee beans to make naturally flavored vanilla coffee. (More suggestions for flavoring your morning coffee can be found here.)
- Steep them in brewed coffee or tea and drink up vanilla's health benefits.
- Make vanilla simple syrup.
- Steep in a jar of milk or half and half to make a naturally flavored coffee creamer (or add to steamed milk for a delicious treat).
Believe me, after you use a vanilla bean in your recipe, you will not want return to imitation extracts. There really is no comparison when it comes to the exquisite, aromatic, and sweet flavor of a fresh vanilla bean!