Ask a baker what his/her favorite ingredient is and you’ll get a little of everything: butter, sugar, flour, yeast, etc. Ask a baker what their favorite spice/flavoring is and you’ll probably get Vanilla, with the odd Cinnamon. Why all the questions? Well, during the month of August (every Thursday to be exact) Cooking with Books will be focusing on that one essential flavor: Vanilla. We’ll touch on everything from history to varieties, as well as preservation methods and recipes. Today we’ll start small, with a few facts and tips. Vanilla will be the focus of every Thursday, showcasing ways to use it in sweet applications as well as savory dishes.
|Photo Property of Beanilla Trading Company|
What are Vanilla Beans?
Only the second most expensive spice in the world, after Saffron and before Cardamom, Vanilla beans are the fruit of the Vanilla planifolia (main species). Each flower produces one fruit, a slender and aromatic bean. The flower is an hermafrodite, meaning it has both male and female parts, separate as to not cause auto-pollination. Who pollinated them? Bees! A specific bee, called the Melipone found in Mexico would land on the flower and do a little dance, pollinating the flower. As with everything, us humans now imitate that pollination by hand, which is why the beans are so expensive.
Are there different types of Vanilla Beans?
Yes! Vanilla is produced in Madagascar, India, Tahiti, Mexico, and a few other countries and just like a good wine, terroir affects its flavor, size and potency. The trees that are planted nearby, the shade/sunlight they get, the method of pollination, the air they breathe! Anything and everything can infuse the beans with a slightly different nuance. The Vanilla Beans we’ll be focusing on this month are from: Madagascar, Tahiti, India and Mexico.We’ll also test out some extract, ground vanilla and vanilla powder.
How to Store Vanilla Beans
Imagine where YOU’D like to be stored. Would you enjoy a humid, hot room? How about a shivering, cold fridge? No, you would NOT. Be the bean and you will learn to store it. A cool, airtight container will do the trick. No, do NOT place the beans in the fridge because this will only dry them out. Leave them in the vacuum sealed bag if it comes in one and if it doesn’t, wrap in plastic wrap tightly. Unless you buy a thousand beans, you’ll use them up before you have to air them out. BUT if you are lucky enough to have a thousand beans in your possession, remember to air them out every few months. Normally, it’s recommended you buy the beans you’re estimating on using in the next 6 months. Don’t be greedy.
What to do with your Vanilla Beans NOW?
While I test out some recipes, you can start prepping your vanilla beans into some basic, but aromatic items that will need very few ingredients, a little love and a week or two of sitting time.
- Vanilla Salt: Cut a slit through the bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds off with a spoon. Using a knife will also remove the tiny hairs inside the pod, which you don’t want. A spoon is softer and glides into the curve of the bean. Chop the rest of the bean into smaller pieces. In a small bowl, mix 1 cup of your favorite salt with the vanilla scrapings and pieces. Place in an airtight container for a week or more to infuse the salt. Not only can this be used as the salt in your desserts, but we’ll be cooking with it as well later on!
- Vanilla Extract: Cut a slit through the bean and scrape seeds with spoon. I’ve seen a few methods where the seeds are not scraped, but doing this will infuse the flavor a little faster. You will need 3 beans for every cup of distilled alcohol. Vodka is regularly used, as it is a flavorless liquid that can be infused well. I have some beans infusing in brandy and it’s taken them about a month and a half to fight the brandy flavor, but it’s well worth it. Smooth brandy undertones, with the vanilla as the star. Pour into bottle and store in a cool dark place for a few weeks.
- Vanilla Sugar: Did you make flan and steeped the bean in the milk? No worries, rinse it off with a little water, dry it out in your oven and pop into your sugar! Never, ever throw away a bean out. Ever. Not even if your Mother tells you to.
Now I hand it over to you. Are there any nagging questions about Vanilla that you have? Any recipes you’d like me to try out, focusing on Vanilla? Had a dream with Vanilla beans hanging from the ceiling? Leave it in the comments and we’ll decipher it!
Disclaimer: Vanilla samples were sent by Beanilla, free of charge. All opinions are 100% honest, because what would be the point of this then? I was not monetarily compensated for a positive review.