What Is Vanilla Bean?

Buying, Baking, and Recipes

Vanilla, beans, extract, sugar, seeds, recipes, receipts

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Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid plant, which grows in the form of a dark brown bean pod that is long and skinny. Vanilla orchids are grown in tropic climates, including Mexico, Tahiti, Reunion, Mauritius, Comoro, Indonesia, Uganda, and Tongo. Three-fourths of the world's supply comes from Madagascar. Vanilla is enjoyed throughout the world. The beans are used to add real vanilla flavor to sauce, frosting, syrup, ice cream, beverages, and a variety of desserts.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: Two varieties of vanilla orchid
  • Storage: Airtight container in a dry, cool, dark place
  • Grocery Aisle: Spice
  • Substitutes: Vanilla bean paste, vanilla extract

What Is a Vanilla Bean?

There are over 110 varieties of vanilla orchids. Only one, Vanilla planifolia, produces the fruit responsible for 99 percent of commercial vanilla. Another genus, the Vanilla tahitensis is grown in Tahiti. Its fruit has a more pronounced aroma, but debatably less flavor. To produce the fruit, the orchid flowers are hand-pollinated at a specific time of the day when the flowers are open during a short flowering period. The fruit is not permitted to fully-ripen since this will cause the beans to split and lose its commercial value. Hand-harvesting occurs four to six months after the fruit appears on the vines. Once harvested, the green beans go through a treatment process that lasts another six months.

Some areas produce beans with higher vanillin content, which is responsible for the flavor and aroma. The resulting dark brown vanilla bean is usually 7 to 9 inches long, weighs about 5 grams and yields about 1/2 teaspoon of seeds.

Vanilla Bean Uses

Most often, vanilla beans are processed into vanilla extract, a common ingredient in baked goods and other food recipes. Pure vanilla extract is made from real vanilla beans and imitation vanilla extract uses artificial vanillin flavoring.

Whole vanilla beans or their seeds are used in recipes, just not as frequently because of the higher cost. The tiny seeds add texture and the bean has an intense flavor, plus they can add to the beauty of a light-colored dessert. Vanilla beans are simple to prepare. They're also often used whole to infuse the natural flavor into sugar, syrups, and beverages, including liquors.

How to Cook With Vanilla Bean

Preparing a vanilla bean is easy. For most recipes, use a sharp knife to slice the bean in half lengthwise while leaving the underside intact. Then scrape the seeds out and incorporate them into the recipe's other ingredients. The outer pod can be used to infuse the vanilla flavor into milk, cream, or sugar—a good use for dried out and old vanilla beans, too. For whole bean recipes, generally cut off the ends then chop up the remainder (save the ends for vanilla infusions as well).

You can also use whole beans to make your own vanilla extract. It's an easy infusion but takes about two months for the flavor to develop. Another option is to use them to make vanilla bean paste. It's a faster process but does require more work. This can be used as a replacement for either vanilla bean or vanilla extract in many recipes. It also retains the little black flecks that make vanilla bean recipes beautiful.

If the beans dry out, they can be rehydrated. Soak them in milk or warm water for several hours.

What Does It Taste Like?

Vanilla beans have the most intense vanilla flavor and aroma that you will find. Generally, vanilla can be described as a sweet, rich, and warm woody or smoky flavor.

Vanilla Bean Substitute

The easiest substitute for whole vanilla beans is pure vanilla extract. The flavor intensity of a bean is much higher than the extract. The general rule is that 1 inch of vanilla bean is equal to 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. That means one tablespoon will replace one whole bean; for extra flavor, increase it to two tablespoons. Generally, when a recipe calls for vanilla extract, it's measured in teaspoons, though. Adding tablespoons can negatively affect the consistency of your food, so you'll need to cut back on another liquid by a tablespoon or two. You would need even more imitation vanilla extract to match the flavor of a whole bean.

Vanilla bean paste is another substitute, though it's not as common as the extract. Again, use 1 tablespoon of the paste to replace 1 whole vanilla bean. Since there's not as much moisture in the paste, you may not have to adjust the recipe's liquids.

Vanilla Bean Recipes

Real vanilla bean ice cream is just one of the many ways you can enjoy vanilla beans. From frostings and sweet sauces to cakes and cookies, the delicious recipes are enticing to explore.

Where to Buy Vanilla Bean

Vanilla beans are notoriously expensive. The price reflects their rarity and the labor involved in growing them. "Premium" vanilla beans are thicker than "Grade B" beans, which is the most common sold in stores. You will generally find a single bean folded up in a spice jar or in long glass vials in the spice aisle of grocery stores and supermarkets. They are available in bulk quantities—ranging from five to a few dozen beans—from online retailers and this generally reduces the price per bean considerably. Buy only what you will use within six months to avoid waste. Vanilla bean paste is available online and at specialty food and kitchen supply stores. It is expensive as well.

Whole vanilla beans should be flexible, moist, plump, glossy, and very fragrant. Avoid any that are dry, brittle, or dull, signs that have been improperly stored or too old.

Storage

To maintain the freshness of vanilla beans, store them in an airtight container, removing as much air as possible. Keep it in a cool, dry, and dark place. Refrigerating vanilla beans may cause mold growth and speed up drying. Open the container for about 15 minutes every few weeks to air out the beans. It's best to use beans within six months as they will dry out over time, even under the best conditions. They can be stored for eight to 12 months, and sometimes up to two years.

Commercial vanilla bean paste can have a shelf life of up to three years; homemade versions are typically good for one year. It should also be stored in an airtight container (typically a glass jar) at room temperature.

Nutrition and Benefits

The vanilla bean has trace amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and zinc. However, the amount added to recipes likely isn't going to affect your daily nutrition significantly. It is better nutritionally than artificially flavored vanilla products, though. A real benefit of using the bean may be in the mood-enhancing aroma and taste. The happy, relaxed feeling you get when burning a vanilla-scented candle can be found in the naturally flavored food as well.