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Are Vanilla Pods Worth Saving?

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2013

Are there any uses for spent vanilla pods?

Vanilla beans bring a complex flavor to many of our desserts, but good beans are definitely expensive. 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.

THE BOTTOM LINE: 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.

BAG THE (SPENT) BEANS: Vanilla pods aren’t a good substitute for beans or extract.