Vanilla is one of those ingredients that we take for granted - it flavours everything from cakes to ice-cream, but most people don’t know much about it. Learn everything you need to know about these flavour-filled beans, plus the correct way to extract seeds from the pod and make vanilla sugar or extract.
How to prepare vanilla pods
Begin by cutting the bean pod in half length ways. Then take one half of the opened pod and, using a small sharp knife, firmly scrape the inside to remove the beans.
How to make vanilla sugar
Take the leftover vanilla pods and put them in the bottom of a latch-top jar. Fill the rest of the jar with caster sugar. Seal and store for future use.
How to make vanilla extract
Split 4 vanilla bean pods in half lengthways, but do not remove the beans inside. Place them in a screw-top jar and cover with vodka, filling the jar to the top. Seal the jar and shake thoroughly. Set aside for 2-3 weeks.
Tips for using vanilla beans
For reference in recipes, 1 bean = 1 tsp of vanilla paste.
Vanilla sugar can add a little sweetness in all sorts of baking recipes
Be sure to store homemade vanilla extract in a cool, dark place while the beans ferment. Shake once or twice a week.
Where does vanilla come from?
Vanilla comes from the pod of a climbing orchid native to Mexico. Early attempts to grow the orchid overseas failed, due to the fact that the orchid can only be pollinated by a local species of bee. In addition, the orchid only blossoms one day per year. An alternative system – pollination by hand – was developed, and is still used today, where it is grown in several equatorial regions. Due to the labour-intensive method, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices available, yet it is a commonly used ingredient.
How to choose and store vanilla beans
Choose vanilla beans that are fragrant, between 15 and 20cm long, and are dark brown with a smooth, slightly oily surface. Store beans in an airtight container, in a cool dark place for up to 18 months. If beans become dried out, re-hydrate them in warm water. Beans may develop a coating of crystals, which is indicative of a high quality bean. Do not confuse crystals with mildew – beans with mildew should be discarded. When buying vanilla extract, essence and paste, always choose products labelled ‘natural,’ as there are several artificial products on the market. Real vanilla extract should be a deep amber colour.
How long do vanilla beans keep for?
Store vanilla beans in an airtight container in the coolest part of the kitchen – they’ll last like this for up to 18 months. Extract, essence and paste can be stored indefinitely in an airtight container in a cool dark place.
What is vanilla bean paste?
A combination of vanilla extract, ground vanilla beans, and sugar syrup, vanilla bean paste is a handy substitute if you don’t have vanilla beans – one teaspoon of paste is equivalent to one bean.
What is vanilla extract?
Vanilla extract is made by macerating chopped vanilla beans in water and alcohol. The resulting syrup has an intense fragrance and flavour. It is better suited for use at high temperatures than vanilla essence, which is a diluted form of the extract.
How to use vanilla beans
Poach stone fruit or figs with vanilla beans, sugar and water. Double the intensity by serving with home-made vanilla ice-cream (see related recipe).
Make a vanilla dacquiri using white rum, sugar syrup, fresh lime juice and vanilla seeds.
Vanilla beans add a surprising flavour to savoury dishes. Scrape the seeds into a butter sauce and spoon over seafood or add to an apple puree and serve with crisp pork belly.
Best vanilla bean recipes
Vanilla bean slice Vanilla custard Peach & vanilla bean yoghurt Vanilla bean ice-cream Strawberry, pear and vanilla bread Vanilla-bean crème brulee Vanilla cakes with vanilla & raspberry milkshake