Vanilla Bean Pods and Seeds
Vanilla beans are the seed pods of the orchid plant, one of the most widely recognized flavors in the world. Vanilla has been used for hundreds of years in sweets, drinks and dishes. Vanilla beans from different areas of the world such as Mexico, Madagascar and Tahiti each have a slightly different flavor and aroma. This is caused by the different growing conditions and differing methods of curing vanilla beans in the various parts of the world. These different "flavors" of vanilla are worth sampling so you can find the distinct vanilla bean flavor that you prefer.
Vanilla beans are picked while they are still green. They have to be cured to create their distinct vanilla flavor and smell. The curing process can take several months, during which time the vanilla bean is repeatedly subjected to the exposure of the sun. This exposure causes the vanilla bean pods to sweat and dry, bringing out its rich flavor and aroma.
Cooking with Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans are highly versatile and add a gourmet touch to the simplest dessert. But vanilla beans tend to be ignored by home cooks in favor of more convenient vanilla extract. But vanilla beans should still be considered! They can impart a deep, rich, full flavor to foods that far exceed the flavor of vanilla extracts. The vanilla bean's flavor comes from both the exterior pod and the inner seeds.
One popular way to use vanilla bean pods is to steep it in the liquid portion of a dish (ie: the cream or milk, eggs etc.). When using for a cream or milk based dish, the liquid is brought to nearly a boil; the bean pod is then placed in the liquid, either whole or split, and the pot removed from the heat and covered, allowing the flavors to absorb into the liquid.
Vanilla bean pods can also be dropped into alcoholic liqueurs to add new flavor to the drink.
Using Vanilla Seeds
Vanilla seeds can also be useful for cooking. To get to the seeds the vanilla bean, split the pod down the middle with a sharp knife, then scrape the insides to remove the tiny vanilla seeds. You can also save the pod to make vanilla sugar!
It is interesting to note, that you can actually see vanilla seeds used in some gourmet foods. For example, vanilla seeds are frequently used in gourmet vanilla ice cream; they are the little black specs in the ice cream.
Vanilla beans average five to seven inches in length and usually contain about a half teaspoon of seeds.
Buying and Storing Vanilla Beans
When you are looking to buy vanilla beans, look for dark, plump bean pods. The beans should be stored in an air tight container and keep in a cool, dry location.