Vanilla remains a misunderstood spice. Over the years, we’ve received numerous questions on how to use vanilla, how to make extracts, and what to do with vanilla beans. Still, the overwhelming vector of inquiry is, as always price: Why pay more for a single bean when I can buy a whole bottle of extract? Simply put, a small investment in a few vanilla beans will, properly handled, pay off for years to come.
Making your own vanilla extract is cheaper in the end and yields better results. Unlike premade extracts, which contain additives, or imitation vanilla, which is synthesized from petrochemical byproducts, a homemade extract is pure. Perhaps more importantly, vanilla beans can still be used after extraction. There are several ways to make the most of your vanilla, and many can be used in combination. We came up with this simple guide to show some of the possibilities of a fully realized vanilla bean.
Alcohol encourages the release of flavouring compounds without heat, so the full range of flavour is preserved. The beauty is, alcohol is so efficient in extracting flavour from the bean that it will reach saturation point well before the bean is fully extracted.
In other words, you can make a full-flavoured extract that hardly impacts the bean’s flavour. This is how some companies can resell pre-extracted beans by chopping them into pastes. Resell them yourself.
Once you’re confident your extract is fully saturated (it’s dark brown and smells amazing), you’re ready to extract what flavour remains through heat. To really stretch your beans, keep them whole as you simmer them in water and sugar in a covered pot.
Rhubarb and vanilla simple syrup recipe (can be made with any fruit)
Now you can explore what flavours remain hidden inside the bean. Splitting or squeezing it open, you’ll see thousands of little vanilla seeds we like to call “vanilla caviar.” This visually appealing assemblage is great in desserts: ice cream, cakes, cookies, or anywhere you can see the cute little seeds.
Once you’ve removed the caviar, you can dry the bean halves and put them in a jar of sugar. The light floral overtones that remain will slowly permeate your sugar. You can continue adding dry beans to your sugar collection for… well, forever. If you keep sugar at home, there’s really no reason not to also have vanilla sugar.
Of course this 4-step path is just one way to maximize your vanilla. It’s just as fun to chop up a whole bean and toss it in a jam or stew and enjoy the full range of flavour in every bite. The point is, vanilla beans are easy to work with and pay off much more than prefab substitutes.