How to Use Vanilla Beans: A Step by Step Tutorial

Tahitian vanilla beans. Tahitian vanilla beans have a slightly more fruity taste than the typical Madagascar/Bourbon type.

Tahitian vanilla beans. Tahitian vanilla beans have a slightly more fruity taste than the typical Madagascar/Bourbon type.

Ahh, vanilla (or as my 4 year old cousin says, “I want some valinna ishe cream!”) I often find myself searching the web or looking around on fun cooking websitesthere are always tons of recipes involving vanilla bean and when I go to the supermarket, there’s, GASP, vanilla bean ice cream, vanilla bean cake mix, vanilla bean cookies, vanilla bean milk, vanilla bean pudding, vanilla bean yogurt and everything else, which makes one wonder: what is the big deal about these skimpy beans anyway, and how do they work? Vanilla beans, in my opinion, can be quite intimidating for a few reasons:

  •  A lot of very professional chefs use vanilla bean as a luxury ingredient, which makes them seem very hard to maneuver.
  • Vanilla beans are the second most expensive spice, next to saffron, because vanilla beans are hard to maintain. Grown from orchids in tropical climates, one pod takes 10 years for an orchid to grow, before being fermented and cured for 6 months, just for one vanilla bean!
  • Vanilla beans have a process that you need to use to make them, and a few bad mistakes you can make. Just remember, practice makes perfect!

I once tried to use vanilla beans (notice, I used the word tried). I made a vanilla bean cake which would have worked out well, except I didn’t know how to use vanilla beans, so threw the whole bean into a food processor with sugar, which ended up overheating the food processor because it was too much work for it, and ruining the cake. Folks, if you don’t know how, don’t try it. But in the end, I recently made a vanilla bean bundt cake, which worked out quite well, after getting a lesson in using them from my friend who is a chef. In terms of types of vanilla bean: unless specified in your recipe, it doesn’t REALLY matter, but I would go with Madagascar because it is what people mostly think of.

There are a few great recipes you should try:

http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2011/01/vanilla-bean-pudding/ (a better version of the above KozyShack link)

http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2009/12/vanilla-roasted-pears/ (because this sounds so good, even though it’s totally summer now, and pears SHOULD be out of the picture, but then again, I SHOULD be frolicking in a meadow somewhere in France or relaxing on a beach with dolphins while sipping a piña colada in (sigh) Hawaii, but I still have to take math tests at school, so…)

http://smittenkitchen.com/tips/2015/01/21/make-your-own-vanilla-extract/ (this is a super fun rainy day project, and an amazing gift)

http://ourbestbites.com/2011/03/bananas-foster-bread-pudding/ (okay, okay, there’s no vanilla bean in this, but it looked so good!!)

http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2010/04/petite-vanilla-bean-scones/ (PS: these are one of my favorites to get at Starbucks, so if you don’t have time for this, buy some at your local overpriced hotspot)

http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2009/07/vanilla-bean-ice-cream/ (had to include a classic)

So here is how to use the split n scrape tactic for vanilla beans:

  1. Split your bean: lay a bean vertically across a cutting board and take a small paring knife and gently drag it deep across the bean, splitting it lengthwise, as shown.

    Split your bean: lay a bean vertically across a cutting board and take a small paring knife and gently drag it deep across the bean, splitting it lengthwise, as shown.

  2. Scrape your bean: using the side of your knife, drag the knife through the center of the half-bean, picking up those little speckles, before shedding them into a bowl. Because beans are expensive, try not to waste too much. If you have extra, save it for next time.

    Scrape your bean: using the side of your knife, drag the knife through the center of the half-bean, picking up those little speckles, before shedding them into a bowl. Because beans are expensive, try not to waste too much. If you have extra, save it for next time.

    You’re done! See, it wasn’t too hard!

So, now what? Obviously you still have the pod, which shouldn’t go to waste because they are very expensive, as mentioned twice before. Here are a few great things to do: (credits to Food52 and Dorie Greenspan for their fabulous ideas, and to Claude for the vanilla milk recipe)

  1. Make vanilla sugar (or salt). Either dump your pods to soak in a jar of sugar or salt, or chop up  dried bean and slam it in the food processor with the sugar or salt. Use in cookies or on other recipes. (learn from my mistakes and be careful with the food processor)

    Make vanilla sugar (or salt). Either dump your pods to soak in a jar of sugar or salt, or chop up dried bean and slam it in the food processor with the sugar or salt. Use in cookies or on other recipes. (learn from my mistakes and be careful with the food processor)

  2. CREDITS TO FOOD52. Make some poached fruit: (this works great with apples pears and other stone fruit). Skewer a pod through the fruit before poaching or roasting for supreme flavor.

    CREDITS TO FOOD52 for the photo. Make some poached fruit: (this works great with apples pears and other stone fruit). Skewer a pod through the fruit before poaching or roasting for supreme flavor.

  3. Make some DIY Vanilla extract for your recipes. Use this recipe: http://smittenkitchen.com/tips/2015/01/21/make-your-own-vanilla-extract/

    Make some DIY Vanilla extract for your recipes.  Use this recipe.

  4. Steep some pods in your Chai tea…yummmm. (I always love Tazo Chai with honey and milk)
  5. Make bath salts! Chop your pods and mix with some epsom salts and vanilla extract for delicious smelling bathtime. (credits to Dorie Greenspan and Mary Dodd)
  6. Make REAL vanilla milk. Steep vanilla pods in milk in the fridge for as long as you like.

A FINAL NOTE: obviously, vanilla beans are associated with sweet foods, but please don’t hesitate to use them in savory recipes. Stuff some roast chicken with them, roast them with carrots, or make a spicy vanilla dressing–the options are endless!

Thanks everyone! I hope you enjoyed this post and you benefited from it. Never fear the pod! HINT on next post: it doesn’t have to do with eating…Keep cooking! 😉

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