A staple ingredient in both sweet and savory dishes, vanilla beans are prized in the culinary world for their unique versatility and distinctive flavor. Used as a spice in baking, cooking and even perfumery, vanilla beans are long, thin pods that are the fruit of a flowering orchid plant. Here’s a closer look at the sweet and savory world of vanilla beans and why investing in this flavorful spice will elevate the taste of your next dish.

Vanilla bean pod with orchid flower.
Photo credit: Depositphotos

What is vanilla bean? 

Even though we call them vanilla beans, they are actually not a bean at all. In place of flowers, orchids in the vanilla family produce 6- to 12-inch long, thin bean-like pods that are considered a fruit. When picked, the fruit is green, and during cultivation, they shrivel and turn brown, and this is what we use. 

The vanilla bean pod contains thousands of black seeds that hold all the wonderful essence. Cut the pod open and scrap the seeds out to release the magical vanilla flavor and aroma that adds that special something to muffins, cakes and French toast.

Vanilla has an intoxicating aroma and an intense flavor that has caramel, honey and earthy flavor notes. There is more than just the vanilla bean pod for flavoring our foods; in this Guide to Our Favorite Spice, learn about vanilla extract, vanilla paste and vanilla powder.

Why are vanilla beans so expensive? 

The limited growing areas: Originally from Mexico, this orchid plant has limited growing areas in a few tropical regions, including Madagascar, Tahiti and Indonesia.

Crop output: It takes up to three years before plants start producing beans. It then takes up to nine months for the pods to mature, and each plant produces a small number of pods.

Rolled vanilla bean pods.
Photo credit: Yayimages

The process:  The orchid flowers are hand-pollinated, which is a time-consuming endeavor that increases the cost of the spice along with the long curing process, which takes several months.

Weather conditions: Weather can result in failed crops. Since the growing areas are in tropical regions, extreme weather conditions such as cyclones, and now temperature variations, are affecting vanilla production resulting in short supplies.

The demand:  The use of quality vanilla beans has increased, and demand has outgrown production, which has increased the cost of vanilla.

The many types of vanilla bean 

Much like wine, vanilla has specific flavors and potency unique to the regions in which they are grown.  There are over 100 species of vanilla, but these three are the most used.

Madagascar bourbon vanilla (vanilla planifolia): Over 75 percent of the world’s vanilla beans are grown in Madagascar. This vanilla has a rich and creamy flavor with the classic vanilla scent because of the high content of the vanillin compound.  Indonesian and Mexican vanilla also comes from Vanilla planifolia. 

Tahitian vanilla (vanilla tahitensis): This vanilla is a blend of two species of vanilla and is hand-cultivated from small crops, which makes it extremely expensive. Tahitian vanilla is prized for its floral-fruity flavors and exotic aroma.   

Indonesian vanilla  (vanilla planifolia): The unique smokiness and woody flavor is why the Indonesian vanilla beans stand out.  Next to Madagascar, Indonesia produces the most vanilla with these high-quality vanilla beans.

“You can’t beat using a fresh vanilla bean for real delicious vanilla flavor! I love using them when I have them on hand. They’re so easy to use, too. You can just split the bean and scrape out the seeds inside.”
— Laura Sampson  Little House Big Alaska

How to use vanilla beans 

Vanilla beans can be used in a variety of ways in cooking and baking, and the pods must be scraped of their seeds before they can be used. Once you scrape the seeds, use them immediately to ensure the best flavor.

Process of putting vanilla for baking.
Photo credit: Yayimages

Vanilla in sweets

Vanilla adds a sweet, aromatic flavor to foods and is one of the most commonly used spices in sweet dishes. Its warm, sweet flavor pairs perfectly with sugar, cream and chocolate, making it a popular addition to puddings, cakes, cookies, ice cream and other desserts.

The sweet notes of vanilla also complement sweet dishes like a sweet potato casserole, caramelized squash or roasted carrots. Add some freshly scraped vanilla beans to your French toast, pancakes or yogurt to jazz up your breakfast fare.

Because of its sweet flavor, vanilla helps balance the bitterness of coffee, which is why you find this flavor in many coffee-based drinks.  New to mixology are cocktails featuring vanilla beans. 

One of the most popular uses for vanilla beans is homemade vanilla extract. Make your own vanilla essence by steeping sliced vanilla beans in alcohol (such as vodka or bourbon).

Vanilla in savory dishes

When thinking about savory dishes, vanilla may not be the ingredient that comes to mind, but this flavoring can add a unique depth to many recipes. Many types of meat, including duck, venison and pork, can benefit from vanilla’s warm, woody flavor.

Try a savory vanilla glaze for ham or pork. In addition to adding a subtle sweetness to rice dishes, such as risotto, vanilla can be used in marinades for chicken and beef.

Add vanilla bean seeds to creamy soups like a rich butternut soup, or even cream of mushroom soup for a flavor enhancer.

Be creative and pair vanilla bean seeds with your favorite herbs for teas, salad dressing and dipping sauces.

Beyond food

Vanilla is one of the most versatile spices and has a multitude of uses outside of the culinary world. 

A number of high-end fragrance products incorporate vanilla bean oil into their formulas. And because of the calming effect of the vanilla scent, it is commonly used in aroma therapy.

Vanilla homemade soap.
Photo credit: Yayimages

Here are 10 of the great uses for vanilla beans 

1.     For an exciting spice blend, combine vanilla bean seeds with other spices such as cinnamon,  cardamom or nutmeg.

2.     Scrape out the seeds to add to all kinds of baked goods like cookies, cakes and scones.

3.     Stick the leftover pod in sugar to make vanilla sugar to use in all kinds of recipes.

4.     Make homemade vanilla extract for yourself and give it as a present.

5.     Make a vanilla simple syrup to add to coffee and cocktails.

6.     Scrape the vanilla bean seeds and add to whipped cream or an ice cream base.

7.     Add vanilla bean seeds to salad dressings and marinades.

8.     Make a vanilla bean fragrance for your home for a natural air freshener

9.     Make your own candles and add the vanilla bean seeds and show off the pretty speckles.

10.  Make a vanilla bean body scrub, bath salts or body oil. 

Availability 

Vanilla beans can be found at almost any grocery store or online retailer, making them easy to incorporate into your favorite recipes.

Many beans are labeled as Grade A or Grade B vanilla beans. The difference between the two is the moisture level of the beans.

Grade A vanilla beans are considered to be gourmet vanilla beans and have a higher moisture content that makes them plumper and easy to slice open, and the seeds are easy to scrape out.  These beans are the most expensive.

Vanilla bean pods with orchid flower.
Photo credit: Yayimages

Grade B vanilla beans have less moisture content and may look dry and brittle. These beans are harder to slice open and are best for steeping and making extracts. These beans are the least expensive but are still quite usable.

Storage tips 

Because of the premium price you pay for vanilla beans, make sure you have the right storage container and store them in a cool, dry place in a sealed bag or an airtight container, and even though they should be good for two years, you should use them within six to eight months while they are still in their prime.

When it comes to cooking and baking, vanilla beans are an essential ingredient. In addition to adding flavor to dishes, they add a distinctive aroma that can’t be achieved with artificial vanilla extracts.

This article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.

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