Tips for Buying, Storing, Using, etc

Okay, you just bought some vanilla beans, now what? I normally will purchase my vanilla beans in bulk from Amazon vendors and try to order more than enough for what I need to make vanilla extract. That way I'll have plenty for other recipes. Here are a few tips I've learned with using vanilla beans.

Buying Quality Vanilla Beans

Premium vanilla beans, regardless of origin, should have a rich, full aroma. They should be oily or waxy to the touch and should be flexible or soft. The grade or appearance of the beans needed depends on the availability and your desired use. For extracts or recipes where the physical appearance of the bean isn't important it's cheap and best to buy Grade B or sometimes referred to as Extract Grade. Premium beans can also be used in these cases as well, but you should buy the vanilla beans in bulk to lower the cost.

Beans to avoid are those with very little scent, are smoky, brittle or dry or are mildewed.

Premium vs Extract Grade

Vanilla beans are categorized in 3 grades for their quality, moisture, appearance and length. The best grade of vanilla beans is referred to as Grade A, "Premium" or sometimes "Gourmet". These beans pods are extremely moist and the natural oils should be visible on the outside of the vanilla bean. You can even feel the oil residue on your fingers after touching. Longer beans are more desirable (6-8" or more in length). The moisture content in these pods is usually between 30-35%.

Grade B or "Extract" are a good buy when the appearance isn't as important. These beans will have approximately 10% less moisture (15-25%). They may be shorter, contain less oil and appear slightly cracked. This is where you will save a lot of money in buying vanilla beans

There is also a Grade C. These are normally relegated to industrial uses simply due to their small size and lesser quality.

Keeping and Storing Vanilla Beans

Do not refrigerate beans as this will cause them to harden and crystallize. In dry climates you can store beans at room temperature place in an airtight glass jar and away from sunlight. It hot and humid climates where beans are grown, they are wrapped in oiled or waxed paper and stored in tin boxes. They will normally be shipped in shrink-wrapped plastic packaging. They should be removed from this as they will only keep for 2 months like this. Also, if stored where the temperature is above 80°F the beans may "sweat" in the plastic. It's best to keep them in waxed paper in a glass jar.

Two things to be wary of with vanilla are it's sensitivity to heat and the ability to absorb other aromas. Vanilla easily picks up the aromas if stored with other ingredients. Vanilla is also sensitive to heat and tends to be drowned out. The most heat-sensitive type of vanilla is the Tahitian variety. This is why the Tahitian variety is most commonly used when making cold desserts.

Some beans may develop a layer of vanillin crystals if kept for long periods. This is referred to as "givre" in French (meaning light frost), the crystal as edible and indicative that the beans are very high in natural vanillin and a good quality. Mildew, on the other hand, can also grow on vanilla beans and ruin them. To tell the difference you can look at them under sunlight. Crystals will reflect light like a prism while mildew will be a dull, flat color. Mildew infected beans should be thrown out.

Here are a few tips from one of my vendors to help quality beans last up to 2 years:

  • Keep your vanilla beans in their original packaging until usage (up to 3 months). After which they should be wrapped in wax paper and stored in an airtight glass jar or tupperware container.
  • Never store in the refrigerator. This will dry out the beans and the moisture present may cause them to mold.
  • Vanilla beans should be aired regularly by removing them from containers for 10-15 every few weeks.
  • Plan to only buy quantities you will use within 6-8 months.
  • If they have dried out you can re-hydrate them just before use in either milk or warm water for several hours.

How to Use Vanilla Beans

One of my favorite ways to use vanilla, besides a homemade vanilla extract, is to use it in it's most pure and unrefined state. To use, start by cutting off the ends of the vanilla bean. Next, slice the bean lengthwise. I find that I can normally use a butter knife to apply light pressure to splay out the bean. You can also cut it completely in half lengthwise. To remove the seeds or "caviar" use the back-side of your knife and scrape down the inside of the bean. Easy!

Don't throw out the unused pods. They can be kept to flavor vanilla sugar, flavor drinks or use them in a recipe that calls for ground beans.