Cooking With Vanilla Beans

Vanilla beans, which are actually a seed pod of the Vanilla Planiflora orchid plant, are one of the most expensive and prized seasonings in the world. The delicate, creamy aroma and flavor of vanilla has been used in sweets, drinks, and savory dishes for hundreds of years. Native to Mexico, this aromatic flavoring is now grown mostly in places like Madagascar and other Pacific islands- and is known as Bourbon vanilla. However, a small portion of the world's supply of vanilla is still available from Mexico and Tahiti. Each locale has a distinctive flavor and aroma, which varies slightly depending on growing conditions.

The beans are picked green, and then cured to create the signature vanilla flavor and smell. Quality beans are generally long and plump, and are first killed, then sweated, which stops the normal growing of the bean, and begins the enzyme reactions necessary for the flavor development. Beans can be killed by placing in the sun or dunking in scalding hot water. They are then repeatedly subjected to sun exposure for drying, and sweating, which cures the bean over a period of several months, and allows it to develop the pungent flavor and aroma. They are often laid on racks, or wrapped in wool blankets during this process.

The key ingredient in the vanilla bean is vanillin, the compound responsible for the special flavor. High quality vanilla beans, often Bourbon beans, will develop a frost, or a light layer of crystals on the outside of the bean. This is often considered an indicator of high quality beans, as the crystals are formed from vanillin, and are not only edible, but in no way harm the use of the bean.

Vanilla beans often are ignored by home cooks in favor of the more convenient vanilla extract, but beans can impart a rich, full flavor to foods that is unmatched by extracts. The flavor comes from both the pod and the interior seeds, which often show up in gourmet ice cream. Cream dishes benefit from splitting the bean open, then steeping it in scalded milk; this creates an exquisitely flavored ice cream, creme brulee, custard, or other dessert. After steeping, the vanilla seeds can be scraped out of the pod and added to the cream dish.

Many home comes may not be aware that vanilla beans are often reusable. The left over seed pod may be dried and reused. Although the flavor may not be as strong for subsequent uses, it often retains quite a bit of aroma and flavoring. Even dried out pods can be rehydrated and used. These often make great sugar or coffee, flavored simply by placing the pods in the container and closing it tightly over a period of days or weeks. For those who enjoy a stronger flavor, the dried bean can be ground up- similar to coffee or other spices- and placed in with coffee, cocoa, sugar, or other desserts and drinks.

When shopping for vanilla beans, consumers should look for a plump, nearly oily appearance. Beans that are dry or withered will have a much lower quality and flavor. While some cooks advocate storing vanilla beans in the freezer, this can dry them out; storing in a dry and cool location is the best way to extend the life of the beans. Vanilla beans can be an elegant addition to the home cook's arsenal, and can take an ordinary dish to extraordinary by the simple addition of the aromatic bean.

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About The Author, Scott Davis
Vanilla beans can add some incredible flavor to your cooking, so give them a try! If you are looking vanilla beans or for other gourmet vanilla extracts, visit Vanilla Importers (http://www.vanillaimporters.com).