When to splurge on whole vanilla beans and how to use them
Incredibly fragrant and easy to work with, vanilla beans have the power to add intense flavor to a variety of recipes. But they're not cheap. At $2 to $3 per bean, vanilla is the second most expensive spice behind saffron, mostly because so much work goes into each bean. Every flower on the vine must be hand-pollinated to ensure that it produces a vanilla bean. The beans are harvested seven to 10 months later, then cured for six to nine months before being exported and ending up in kitchens around the world. If yours is one of them, make the most of that not-so-ordinary vanilla bean by using it in a recipe that lets it shine.
When to use vanilla beans
Use beans in recipes where vanilla is the main flavor, like custard, panna cotta, pudding and ice cream. Once used, rinse spent beans and let them dry. Repackage them in an airtight container and use again to make vanilla sugar.
Vanilla beans are indigenous to Mexico, so it's no surprise that Mexican beans are the most prized. Madagascar, or bourbon, vanilla is another great choice; it's often used in vanilla extract. Indonesian, West Indian and Tahitian vanilla beans are less desirable and often used in combination with imitation vanilla, or to make perfume.
Buying and storage
Look for vanilla beans that are pliable, with no indication of drying out. They should be dark brown or black, moist to the touch and very fragrant. Store them in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to 18 months.
Because vanilla beans are so expensive, it's not uncommon for them to be stolen just before harvest. To prevent this, farmers have started painstakingly branding each bean using a cork and pins.
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