Vanilla beans are pods from a type of orchid that originated in Mexico. Now, vanilla pods are cultivated in several places across the globe, and are frequently classified from where they are grown, as each area adds subtleties to the flavor. Among the most well-known types are Mexican, Bourbon/Madagascar, West Indian, and Tahitian. Harvesting vanilla pods is no easy feat, hence the price that comes second to saffron in the spice market. But there are some reputable dealers out there with fair prices if you are willing to do a bit of research.
What to Look for:
A good quality bean will be plump, slightly oily, flexible, and fragrant. Old pods will be brittle and dry.
What can you do with them? Well, lots of things. My first experiment with vanilla beans started today. I'm beginning my first batch of homemade vanilla extract. I hope to keep you, gentle reader, apprized of the progress over the coming weeks. All you really need to start making your own extract is a glass jar, some vodka, a few beans, and patience.
Yields 8 oz.
1 cup vodka
2-3 vanilla beans
small glass jar
First, we're going to split the beans. Take a sharp knife and run the tip through, starting near one end and all the way down through the other end. For this application, we are not going to scrape out the seeds. Just look at this beautiful bean footage. Decadent vanilla 'caviar' for the win. (Click this picture for a nice close-up.)
Put the beans in a small, glass jar and fill with the vodka. Avoid using a plastic container to avoid picking up off-flavors. (Plastic lids are okay.) Twist on the lid and store for at least 2 months in a cool, dark, dry place.
Day 1 and counting!