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.
Honeyed Pears in Puff Pastry
A honey of a salute to late-summer pear season, this cozy dessert has plenty of "wow" factor. Wrapped in puffed pastry, it resembles a beehive.
—Heather Baird, Knoxville, Tennessee
Cherries in the Snow
Dried Oregon cherries soaked in rum dot this light, creamy rice pudding. We developed this recipe for our guests with dietary concerns who still want a treat. Sugar-free and fat-free. What's not to love?
—Barbara Sidway, Baker City, Oregon
Lavender Peach Gelato
This sophisticated herbal gelato can be served as an appetizer, a palate-pleaser between courses or a dessert that tastes like heaven on a spoon.
—Christine Wendland, Browns Mills, New Jersey
Vanilla Crescent Cookies
This recipe originated in Croatia and has been in my husband's family for generations. I was thrilled when my mother-in-law shared it with me.
—Beverly Williams, Rhinelander, Wisconsin
Vanilla-Lime Fruit Salad
Feel free to be creative with the fruits you use in this recipe. The versatile dressing is amazing tossed with fresh strawberries or even drizzled over pound cake.
—Kathryn Dampier, Quail Valley, California
B&W Vanilla Bean Puddings with Fresh Strawberries
This simple recipe has only a few ingredients. Personalize yours by adding chopped candy bars to the pudding for the kids. For adults, add a tablespoon or so of your favorite liqueur.
—Kristy Shellhorn, Guelph, Ontario