Vanilla Bean 101

August 17, 2009

When I was in college, I remember an economics class where one of the basic financial instruments was called a vanilla bond. Having never seen a vanilla bean before, the only thing associated it to the basic ice cream flavour and didn’t pay much heed. Years later when I had my brush with the real stuff, I took offense to the term. How can anyone use vanilla in the context of being something so commonplace? It is anything but plain and boring! I’m convinced that there has been a mistake somewhere along the line and the misrepresentation stuck. Vanilla adds flavour. Vanilla enhances flavour. There is nothing apart from good vanilla that can make a baker happy. And it’s no surprise that vanilla takes the number one spot on my list.

Vanilla is expensive and that’s why you should careful about what you buy. Good vanilla bean is moist, bendy and typically over 6 inches in length. A colleague of mine at work, Dhruv, shared these tips on how to buy vanilla:

  • The bean should be aromatic and feel dense when held.
  • Wrap the bean tightly around your forefinger. If the bean remains intact, you’re good. If the bean crumbles, you know that the bean is a little old and not at the peak of its flavour.
  • After you’ve unwrapped the vanilla bean from your finger, and you see an oily residue, it goes to show that the beans are concentrated with oils and are full of flavour; a good sign.
  • When you cut the bean at either of the ends, you should see oil bubbles oozing and not just the vanilla caviar.

As for storage, vanilla beans are best stored in wax paper or plastic wrap and then placed in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Just make sure not to refrigerate it because it tends to get mouldy.

Vanilla Seeds

I’d heard of double strength and triple strength vanilla, and it sounded like a tempting purchase, but I soon learned that it isn’t really a matter of concern for most of us home bakers. It is just something used by professionals when they’d rather use more concentrated extract in lesser quantity so as to maintain the colour of a pristine white icing that requires vanilla flavourings sans the brownish tinge.

I’m sure you’d be interested in making your own vanilla extract. I made it a while ago, and am going to make a few more bottles of it thanks to Rajika who sent me a bagful of vanilla beans. The extract is especially good with ice creams because it has a vodka base and results in a much softer, delicate texture (since vodka freezing point is way lower at 27°C/16°F).

I have only recently discovered the goodness of steeping vanilla bean with peaches and cherries in hot water to infuse the flavour and letting it stand overnight for a super delicious jam. For this, simply cut the bean on either ends, make an incision through the length tough skin and scrape down to get your dose of pure vanilla goodness.

Once you’ve scraped off the vanilla, you can either stick the remaining bean into a jar of sugar for your very own vanilla sugar or dry it in the oven on a low temperature setting (115°F/45°C), grind it to a powder and use it in sprinkled over French toast or in cakes, ice creams or any place you’d like pronounced vanilla visibility. It would especially be great swapped with cinnamon in this cake , both in the batter as well as the sugar crust.

I came upon something quite unique – vanilla infused olive oil on Vanilla Garlic. Garrett suggests quite a few ways as to how this can be used, but the one I like the most is to use it over grilled fruit. I’m thinking it’d be great to brush peaches with this oil just before placing it on the grill. Unfortunately, I’ve got to wait another year before I get my hands on some peaches. Until then I’m going to occupy myself with other vanilla projects.

Have tips on using vanilla bean? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Katie August 17, 2009 at 4:44 AM

This was really interesting because I've always wanted to work with vanilla beans but never knew really how to go about getting and preparing them! I think the little black specks of vanilla in ice-cream and custard just look so gourmet and delicious!

Reply

2 Nags August 17, 2009 at 7:46 AM

beautiful pics! i haven't yet tried this but have been tempted for a while now.

Reply

3 Heidi Leon Monges August 17, 2009 at 9:05 AM

I totally agree with you, there's nothing bland about vanilla bean.

I also store the dried used vainilla beans in my sugar container and the olive oil one. Vanilla sugar and vanilla olive oil works perfectly with almost everything but specially with grilled fish and seafood.

Sometimes I also add the dried old vanilla bean to the grounded coffee container. delicious.

Reply

4 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella August 17, 2009 at 1:49 PM

Ooh very clever! I had no idea about the wrapping around the finger trick! :D

Reply

5 Parita August 17, 2009 at 1:59 PM

Thats a really helpful post!

Reply

6 Lauren August 17, 2009 at 2:50 PM

wow! great tips! thanks so much :)

Reply

7 The Purple Foodie August 17, 2009 at 3:43 PM

Heidileon: Looks like you're making optimum use of vanilla. Having vanilla with savory food feels odd, but I must try it to know it first hand.

Totally love the idea of mixing dried vanilla bean with ground coffee.

Reply

8 Vasudha August 17, 2009 at 10:31 PM

thanks for the tips on selecting beans… not knowing was one of the reasons i've always hesitated!

Reply

9 pigpigscorner August 17, 2009 at 10:39 PM

Vanilla oil is new. I like steeping vanilla bean in milk, use it for ice-cream or make coffee! or even with cereal.

Reply

10 Ingrid August 18, 2009 at 12:44 AM

Thanks for all the helpful, informative tips!
~ingrid

Reply

11 veda murthy August 18, 2009 at 7:54 AM

very informative post shaheen!

Reply

12 A_and_N August 19, 2009 at 4:22 AM

I love love love this post, Shaheen. And the pics are so good, they look professional

Reply

13 Anushruti August 19, 2009 at 1:32 PM

I firmly believe that nothing can beat a good dose of vanilla goodness! I'm tired of going through the rigmarole of getting pure vanilla abroad each time and soon i'm going to make vanilla extract sans alcohol, since im a teetotaller.

Reply

14 misterrios August 19, 2009 at 4:36 PM

Awesome post! When I moved to Germany, there was only Vanilla Sugar available, or "Butter Vanilla" extract (which is yellow), so I made my own vanilla instead. Plus I sometimes get the urge to add vanilla extract to bread…

Reply

15 Karine August 20, 2009 at 9:44 AM

Original comparison between vanilla bean and vanilla bond! I have a MA in economics but I had never made that link :)

Reply

16 The Purple Foodie August 20, 2009 at 11:34 AM

Thanks, all. :)

Anushruti: How do you make extract without using alcohol? I'm so curious. This is once exception I made to my no booze rule.

Misterrios: Butter vanilla? Sounds interesting; will look that up.

Karine: hahah ;)

Reply

17 ChichaJo August 20, 2009 at 5:05 PM

Great info on vanilla! I have a vodka bottle steeping right now :) That close-up of the knife with the vanilla scrapings is awesome!

Reply

18 Nick August 20, 2009 at 5:39 PM

Great post and amazing photos! I've never seen vanilla that up close. It almost looks like caviar!

Cheers,
Nick

Reply

19 Rajika August 20, 2009 at 7:46 PM

the pictures are GORGEOUS!!!! i can't stop looking!! :) I'm so glad you liked the vanilla :) let me know when you need more!

Reply

20 The Purple Foodie August 20, 2009 at 10:32 PM

Thank you Nick and Jo!

Rajikaaa thank you so much for these :D xoxoxo

Reply

21 Carolyn Jung August 23, 2009 at 3:21 AM

Your pics make a vanilla bean look like a modern art piece. Beautiful! I love the idea of vanilla-infused olive oil, too. Have you ever had vanilla soft-serve drizzled with a little olive oil and sea salt? It's incredible! And a vanilla-imbued olive oil would be even better on it.

Reply

22 Shaheen August 23, 2009 at 11:27 AM

WOW Carolyn, the soft serve drizzled with olive oil and sea salt sounds so gourmet, and possibly an acquired taste. I'm intrigued.

Reply

23 Palidor August 23, 2009 at 5:02 PM

I don't like using "vanilla" to describe something plain and ordinary either. I think it has soooo much depth of flavour and enhances anything it's added to.

Reply

24 Anonymous August 24, 2009 at 3:27 AM

There was recently a post from another blog that inspired me experiment with vanilla beans. I found some online at http://www.beanilla.com for really cheap. My question to you is, how in the world did you photograph these beans? I cannot seem to take a picture of the vanilla beans I received from Beanilla for they are so oily, everything reflects back! Ugh… so frusterating.

Reply

25 Shaheen August 24, 2009 at 3:10 PM

Anon, I've heard such nice things about beanilla as well. It's a pity I don't get to try them here. Oily beans are GOOD! First few photos were so flat and boring. Just messed around with the exposure and got the money shot.

Reply

26 Marillyn Beard August 27, 2009 at 10:55 PM

I am hoping to grow my own vanilla beans. I know a gal who grows it and is willing to give me some. I am excited! I LOVE the smell and flavor of vanilla it will be fun to play around with it!

Reply

27 The Purple Foodie September 1, 2009 at 9:09 AM

GROW your own vanilla beans? WOW that would be awesome!

Reply

28 Pooja June 27, 2010 at 10:34 AM

oh my! always wanted these, don’t know for what.. now I know.
your photos are awesome, very professional looking!

Reply

29 The Purple Foodie June 28, 2010 at 1:28 AM

thank you so much!

Reply

30 Ouida July 2, 2010 at 12:20 PM

My friend Ginny just brought me a handful of vanilla beans from Madagascar. I have had them for a year inside wax paper in a tightly sealed jar. I did not know what to do with them. Thanks for your ideas! I will definitely be making some homemade ice cream!

Reply

31 The Purple Foodie July 2, 2010 at 10:43 PM

Oh that must be amazing! Enjoy your ice cream.:)

Reply

32 Tejal July 31, 2010 at 12:53 PM

Okay! I’ve got a sad question! I got Vanilla beans from Malaysia, and my dear MIL has been storing them in the refrigerator for the past 6 months (eeks! I know) If i take them out and keep them, will they spoil after enjoying that air-conditioned life for 6 months? or do I just use them up immediately? Not much of a baker, so really struggling with how to use it!

Reply

33 char September 2, 2010 at 12:37 AM

Hi…is there any brand that i should be looking for here in mumbai? where can i get them? or bangalore , any particular place…please do lemme know!

Reply

34 Monika January 8, 2011 at 9:35 PM

There is vanilla available in Mumbai at all the Nature’s basket stores, and all The Bombay Store outlets, besides at Indigo Deli and Roman Stores

Reply

35 debbie T January 16, 2011 at 9:53 PM

I found your blog post from a chowhound forum thread. Thank you so much for your ideas. I have been reading about using vanilla in savory dishes, and that is what started me on my quest to find out more.

I love your idea about drying the empty pods!

Reply

36 Sarah chok May 1, 2011 at 11:46 PM

Thanks for the insight on vanilla beans! It’s so hard to get it here in Malaysia :( I just wanna make a decent creme brûlée!

Reply

37 Meghana August 19, 2011 at 11:20 PM

Hi Shaheen!

Thanks for a great post :) Can you give me any suggestions on buying vanilla pods in Mumbai? Preferably not imported ones but from Kerala or Sri Lanka.
Thanks!

Meghana

Reply

38 rachel March 23, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Buy small quantities of vanilla bean in Malaysia visit http://www.iejvanilla.co.my

Reply

39 vicky April 8, 2012 at 1:39 AM

hi, i am just beginning to research and
explore all there is to vanilla. i have gotton
so much helpful info for everything from
vanilla extract to vanilla bean sugar. the one
thing i am not clear on is when substituting
‘vanilla caviar’ or the vanilla seeds scraped
off the bean for vanilla extract in baking
(creme brulee), what is the ratio extract to ‘caviar’?
thanks, vicky
i would appreciate any helpful tips.

Reply

40 Sheila December 19, 2012 at 12:54 AM

I brought back some vanilla beans from Mexico & I went to use them & expected a strong vanilla scent when I split them but it doesn’t smell like vanilla at all? Is there something wrong with them or is that how they are?

Reply

41 saurabh June 24, 2013 at 12:38 PM

Hi I am from Hyderabad and keen in buying authentic vanila extract. Will it be possible for anyone from Coorg to send it across.

Regards,
Saurabh 9848531083

Reply

42 ANJALI July 30, 2013 at 6:42 AM

Hi there,
I cannot tell you how thrilled to bits I am about finding your blog ! Serendipity at its best. :-)

My question to you is ,do I have to immerse the vanilla beans in vodka? Wouldn’t the end result have a lingering vodka taste? I am just curious. Thanks a lot for all the wealth of information.
Cheers,
Anjali

Reply

43 kristjan September 25, 2013 at 12:12 PM

hi…u mentioned that vanilla bean can be purchased from godrej nature bast n Indigo Delicatessen… however after checking theses guys dont sell it or have… can u provide names of some shop tht sells them.

Reply

44 sbv November 27, 2013 at 1:32 PM

godrej nature basket bandra does not have vanilla bean in stock at all.

can anyone from the south courier vanilla beans.
thanks

Reply

45 Kelly October 19, 2013 at 4:07 AM

My brother recommended I might like this blog. He was entirely right.
This post actually made my day. You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this info!

Thanks!

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 9 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: