Long, thin, brown and wrinkly: vanilla beans don't look all that special, or even appetizing. And they are expensive! But are they worth it?
In some recipes, yes. If you are making a recipe where vanilla is the primary flavor (vanilla pound cake, vanilla shortbread, vanilla ice cream, etc.), using a vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract is well worth it. So, this blog post is all about that shriveled bean.
What kind of vanilla beans should I get?
There are three varieties of vanilla bean: Tahitian, Madagascar (Bourbon), and Mexican. There's no right or wrong answer to this question. All three are good quality, if you get fresh beans. Each has its own subtle differences in flavor. It's all about personal preference. I like Madagascar.
If you can, buy in bulk. Buying single beans in a grocery store is very expensive. A single vanilla bean can cost $5 apiece or more. Stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark area, vanilla beans can be kept for a very long time. I buy my beans in bulk from Amazon.com, from JR Mushrooms. A quarter-pound of vanilla beans (25 to 30 pods) costs $18.95, and they're Amazon Prime eligible — free shipping!
How do you use a vanilla bean?
You'll need your vanilla bean, a small cutting board, and a sharp paring knife. There are two ends: one short and stubby end, and the other end has a slight curl. There's no "wrong" way to cut a vanilla bean, but I prefer to place the vanilla bean parallel to me on the cutting board so that the curled end is on the left. I hold the curled end with two fingers on my left hand, and place the tip of the paring knife just to the right of my fingers, in the center of the bean, and cut to the right, splitting the bean down the middle.
Still holding the vanilla bean the same way, use the flat of the blade to scrape the tiny seeds out of each half of the bean and add them to your recipe.
In 99% of recipes, you will not need the pod once the seeds are scraped out. But don't throw it away! I'll get to that in a minute.
How do I substitute vanilla beans for vanilla extract?
You may have a favorite vanilla recipe that calls for vanilla extract, but you want to use a vanilla bean instead. After all vanilla beans provide fresher, more intense vanilla flavor. Extracts vary in flavor intensity, as do vanilla beans (fresher beans have more intense flavor). I use one vanilla bean in place of one teaspoon of vanilla extract.
When to add the vanilla bean seeds will depend on what type of recipe you're making. If you're making cookies, I would add the vanilla bean seeds at the beginning, beating them with the butter and sugar. If you're making something like ice cream, you would need to steep the vanilla bean in the cream first before even starting the recipe. If you're unsure, feel free to contact me with your question.
What can I do with spent vanilla beans?
1) Make vanilla sugar: place two cups of granulated sugar in a container. Bury the spent vanilla bean in the sugar, and cover the container tightly. Let sit for one to two weeks. Use it like regular sugar: add it to coffee, use it in recipes to add extra vanilla flavor.
2) Make your vanilla extract: you'll need a clean glass bottle with a cap or stopper. Pour 8 ounces of vodka in the bottle. Mid-quality vodka is fine, you don't need top-shelf stuff. Add one or two split vanilla beans to the vodka, and seal the bottle tightly. Let sit in a cool, dark place for four to six weeks, giving the bottle a good, vigorous shake every two to three days. After six weeks, use in any recipe that calls for vanilla extract.
I'm trying to make vanilla powder similar to what they have at Starbucks. It seems like powdered sugar but not as thick. Do you have any ideas of how to make this?
Hi Emily, I'm not familiar with Starbucks' vanilla powder, but I did a quick search. It sounds like they mix pre-made vanilla powder (which is dried vanilla extract) mixed with superfine sugar. Nielsen-Massey and Beanilla both sell vanilla powder, and you can make superfine sugar by grinding regular granulated sugar in a spice or coffee bean grinder. I don't the ratio of powder to superfine sugar, though.
Are there any other alcohols you could use in place of vodka?
You can use a mild brandy or rum.
Hope that helps!
JJ kelley says
Thanks oodles for this comprehensive summary. My first vanilla bean purchase was super pricey, so your guidance will help me reap the full benefits. Super appreciated!!!!!!
Are there a lot of beans in each vanilla “stalk”
I paid over $5 for just one!
Hi Maureen. Yes, vanilla is expensive. It's hard to grow, demand is high, and storms on the island of Madagascar damaged a large portion of the crop.
The "stalk" is generally referred to as the bean. Inside the bean are hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny seeds. But you will generally use all of them in one recipe.
Hello, I make homemade pound cakes for my family and friends. Thinking of trying to make one with a fresh vanilla and was told that Madagascar are the best. Is that true? Also in my css as Lea I used 1 teaspoon of vanilla do I plan to not use any and use one fresh bean. Do I need to do anything special after I scrape the bean. I general add my vanilla to my batter at the end. But should I add it earl row when I’m creaming my butter? Do you email the respond or just post here? Thanks
Which vanilla bean is "best" is a subjective matter. Beans from Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti have different flavor profiles, but in baked products, they're very hard to distinguish. What's more important is getting your beans from a reputable vendor. Beanilla, King Arthur Baking, and Penzey's are all good options.
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract is equal to about 2 inches of vanilla bean. Vanilla beans are typically about 6 inches in length, so the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract. If you use vanilla bean, you can omit the extract altogether.
After you use your knife to scrape the tiny seeds out, they'll probably stick there. I use a small spatula to scrape them off of the knife and into the batter. I do this at the stage where I add the eggs.
If you use only part of a vanilla bean, you can wrap the remainder of it in plastic wrap, removing as much air as possible, then place the wrapped bean in a tightly sealed container or zip-top plastic bag and store it at room temperature in a dark place, like a cabinet. You can use the scraped portion of the pod to make vanilla sugar, add vanilla flavor to milk or cream, or make your own vanilla extract with vodka or rum.
Deloris Sawyer says
Updated my email