Vanilla’s Greatest Hits

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

Here are our best tips for making this pricey ingredient last as long as possible.

Vanilla beans bring a complex flavor to many desserts, but good beans are definitely expensive. Here are our guidelines for maximizing the utility of this pricey, flavorful ingredient.

MORE BEAN FOR YOUR BUCK

When we splurge to add vanilla beans to recipes, we want to make sure we get every last seed from the pod. The usual method is to scrape out the tiny, tacky seeds with a paring knife, but inevitably some get left behind. We’ve found a more effective approach: Use some of the sugar in your recipe as an abrasive to literally scrub off all the seeds.

1. Using a sharp paring knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise. Gently pull open each half of the bean to expose the seeds in the interior.

2. Measure out the sugar in the recipe and place it in a bowl. Holding the split pod over the bowl, sprinkle several generous pinches of sugar along the pod’s interior.

3. Run your thumb down the pod, using the sugar to “scrub” the seeds into the bowl. Repeat sprinkling and rubbing until all the seeds are stripped away. Repeat with the second half of the bean.

4. Discard the pods and rub the tacky sugar-coated seeds between your fingers to break up clumps. The vanilla sugar is now ready to use in your recipe.

CAN YOU SAVE THE POD?

Since the pod itself contains a significant amount of vanillin—the primary molecule that gives vanilla its distinctive aroma—we wondered if we could use it as a substitute for beans or extract.

We saved our spent pods, dried them on a rack in a very low oven, and then finely ground them in a spice grinder. We tested the “pod powder” in our recipes for sugar cookies and vanilla ice cream, comparing them with the same recipes made with vanilla extract (cookies) or beans (ice cream), using a 1:1 substitution. The dried ground pods definitely had a different flavor profile, with “malty” or “floral” notes not found in the extract or beans—and not especially welcome flavors either. One taster likened the taste to a “vanilla-scented candle.” The powder also lent the cookies and the ice cream a tan color the other forms of vanilla did not.

Though we hate discarding the pods, their flavor isn’t close enough to extract or to beans to warrant the time and effort it takes to turn them into powder.

STORING IN BOOZE

Besides being expensive, vanilla beans dry out in storage unless well wrapped, and they’re more work, since you have to halve the bean lengthwise and scrape out the sticky seeds. So when we came across a technique on the website Chow that promised to solve both of these problems, we had to try it. The method calls for snipping off the end of a vanilla bean and standing it up in 1/2 inch of vodka (which is flavorless) or rum (which has flavors that complement that of vanilla) in a jar that is then sealed and stored in the fridge.

After a month or so, the alcohol will have traveled up the inside of the bean, turning the seeds into a paste that is easily removed by pinching the bean between two fingers and squeezing. The alcohol also helps prevent the beans from drying out, which can make the seeds especially hard to remove. We found that the technique worked very well, especially after we added an improvement of our own: We cut the beans in the middle, rather than at the end, which left them half as long and able to absorb the vodka twice as fast: in only two weeks. (You can reuse the alcohol for another batch of beans; just top it off to a depth of 1/2 inch.)

1. Snip vanilla bean in half, stand it up in 1/2 inch vodka, and refrigerate.

2. Pinch bean between fingers and squeeze out paste.

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Vanilla Pretzel Cookies

It took some detective work to develop a French butter cookie recipe with a properly sandy texture. Cutting back on the butter in our sable recipe helped, but the breakthrough was using a traditional French ingredient—hard-cooked egg yolk—which eliminated excess moisture and perfected the texture of the cookies.

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