Ask Chef Emily: Vanilla Beans

vanilla 11 emily peterson

Tell me about vanilla beans. —Michael, DUMBO

To know me is to know my love of brevity, in other people, of course; I am a professional storyteller. So when this question came in I thought, “Aah yes, straight and to the point.” Not that I don’t love a meandering question too, but this one is so poetically simple. And so, vanilla beans:

There are more than 20,000 species of orchids in the world, and only one produces the second most expensive flavoring behind saffron: vanilla planifolia. Native to equatorial Mexico, this orchid vine is hand pollinated; thus the high price tag. The fresh, scentless seed pods are harvested green and cured, which condenses the aromatic compounds into the rich flavor we know and love.

Pure vanilla extract is the liquid form, which is sometimes called Bourbon vanilla. Here, “Bourbon” refers to the island, Île Bourbon, (named after the French royal famiy) in the Indian Ocean, now called Réunion. Bourbon vanilla collectively refers to vanillas commercially produced around the Indian Ocean islands, including Madagascar. It doesn’t mean the vanilla is steeped bourbon whiskey, though that too is delicious. You may also find vanillas produced in Mexico and Central America, primarily Costa Rica.

There is no match for real vanilla flavoring. In pods, or as extract, only 100 percent pure will do. The taste artificial vanilla flavoring is the giveaway of a bakery or diner cutting corners. Like “pancake syrup,” will never, ever, be pure maple syrup, so to with vanilla. Pay for the real thing and savor it.

Let’s talk whole pods. A single pod, steeped in the cream base, can go a long way toward flavoring custards and ice creams. Often recipes will ask you to split the bean lengthwise and use the side of the blade to scrape out the teeny black seeds from the center. If this feels unwieldy, cut the bean across the short way first to have more control. Those teeny black seeds are the flecks you see in true vanilla ice cream.

Once the pod has done its job infusing whatever recipe you are making and the black seeds are off in the ice cream maker or in the cream puff, give the pod a rinse under cold water to get the custard off, gently blot dry with a paper towel and pack it in a small mason jar filled with about 2 cups of sugar (granulated or powdered) or sea salt.

Give the jar a shake to evenly distribute the beans and let sit for a week or two. Now, you have homemade vanilla-infused condiments. Try the simple granulated vanilla sugar stirred into your morning coffee or dust your French toast with the powdered vanilla sugar. Proceed as usual in baked recipes and omit the vanilla extract or leave it in for extra vanila-ness. Finish a squash soup or a grilled pork chop with the vanilla salt for a subtle, easy-exotic twist. Use the vanilla sugar in a ketchup, chutney or BBQ sauce recipe.

To make your own vanilla extract, split a pod or two lengthwise and repeat the above steps for sugar or salt, but use two cups of vodka instead, and let it sit a month or two in the cabinet until the vodka is a deep, rich brown.

Vanilla beans cost about $4 each and are worth every penny. If you find them in bulk, they freeze well for up to a year.

Emily Peterson Column Logo

Click here to see Chef Emily’s answers to all your questions.

Have a question about food and cooking? Fill out the form below or email me at to see your answer online!