A vanilla bean is the fruit of a vanilla orchid flower. To produce fruit, something must pollinate this flower within 12 hours of opening — and there is only one natural pollinator — the mountain bee — found only in Mexico. So most vanilla beans result from — wait for it — hand pollination. One flower, one vanilla bean. The painstaking labor of love needed to produce vanilla makes it the second most expensive spice, after saffron. But it’s worth the price when you taste something made with beans freshly extracted from a vanilla pod.
Where To Buy Vanilla Beans
Today, you can find vanilla beans in many supermarkets and specialty shops, including Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma, where you’ll pay about 9 bucks for a few precious pods. Penzey’s, one of my favorite spice shops, sells them for about the same price. (We have a local Penzey’s shop, but you can shop for everything they sell online.) I also found another online spice shop when doing research for this post — Beanilla sells vanilla beans for slightly lower prices, and you can buy them in larger quantities at significant discounts. If you’re looking for a really economical source, check out a local Mexican-American grocery store, where I found a big bag of beans for twenty bucks. You can also find some decent prices for organic vanilla beans online.
Storing and Extracting
Most sources instruct you to store vanilla beans in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Beanilla recommends “airing” them regularly by removing them from storage and allowing air to circulate around them for 10 to 15 minutes. (Perhaps a little over the top for me.) Stored correctly, vanilla beans can last for upwards of two years.
To counter traditional wisdom, I recently found a cool suggestion for storing and using vanilla beans. My latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated suggests you cut your beans in half, place them cut-side-down in a small glass or jar, pour about 1/2″ of vodka in the jar, and keep it in the frig. The beans soak up the vodka which keeps them from drying out, and after about two weeks, you can just squeeze the beans out of the pods like toothpaste. (I have some percolating right now. Will let you know how they turn out.)
Don’t want to use vodka or wait two weeks to enjoy? You can always use the traditional bean extraction technique. Using a very sharp paring knife, cut through one side of the bean lengthwise. Open the pod and use the knife to scrape the beans out.
Repurpose The Pods!
Don’t throw away your vanilla bean pods! Instead use them to impart vanilla flavor with the following ideas:
- Make vanilla sugar by storing spent pods with sugar in an airtight container for two weeks.
- Soak the pods in vodka or rum to make vanilla extract. Without the seeds, the vanilla flavor won’t be as strong, but you can keep adding pods to boost it.
- Let the pods dry and then grind them in a spice grinder to make vanilla powder, which can be used when baking.
For more vanilla FAQs and a vegan vanilla frosting recipe, check out this post on our sister site, Vibrant Wellness Journal.
Do you use fresh vanilla beans? What do you do with them?
Image Credit: Vanilla Beans via Shutterstock