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How to Use Vanilla Beans

A friend of mine brought some fresh vanilla beans back from a trip to Costa Rica.  I have never used fresh vanilla beans before.  What do I do?


Vanilla is the pod of the Vanilla Orchid.  Supposedly, it is the only edible fruit from an orchid plant.  I am assuming that the beans you got have been treated and are not fresh off the plant.  Vanilla beans are picked green and then cured and dried so as to maximize the flavor.

The most common way of using vanilla beans is to slice them lengthwise from end to end.  Scrape the inside of the bean with the edge of your knife to pull off all of the tiny black, nearly microscopic seeds that are found inside.  If your recipe uses milk or cream, you can put the seeds, plus the scraped husks, into the milk or cream and heat it until just starting to scald, around 180°F (82°C).  Leave for about 10 minutes and then remove the husks.  If necessary, cool the milk down to room temperature or refrigerate before using.

If the recipe doesn't call for milk or cream, simply scrape the seeds off of the knife into the food you are preparing.  Substitution is 1/2 to one full bean per teaspoon of vanilla extract called for in the recipe.

You can also make vanilla sugar by placing one or two beans into a cup of sugar and leaving it in a sealed jar for several weeks.  At the end of that time you will have sugar which is flavored with vanilla.  Substitute it cup for cup with the sugar in your recipe.  Some people find this doesn't give a strong enough taste of vanilla,  however.

Finally, you can make your own vanilla extract by placing two or three vanilla beans into an 8 oz (250 ml) bottle of vodka, or other strong spirit.  Vodka is prefered because it won't add other flavors that rum or whisky, for instance, might.  After about a month you will have a usable vanilla extract.  Again, it may be somewhat weaker than commercially prepared extract, but with a little experimentation, you can determine how much to use.

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