You may wonder why the dried, whole vanilla beans (Vanilla planifolia)—available at some health-food and grocery stores—are so expensive. According to Deni Bown’s The Herb Society of America Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses (DK, 1995), vanilla flowers are short-lived and have specific pollinators. In fact, Bown writes, “In cultivation, the plants must be pollinated by hand to produce fruits (vanilla pods), which take five to seven months to ripen.” Obviously, a lot of labor is involved!
Vanilla’s luscious aromatic compounds develop during fermentation of the unripe pods. Those accustomed to synthetic vanilla will swoon at the taste of the real thing. Try storing a vanilla bean in your sugar bowl or jar, to lend a lovely scent and flavor to baked goods. Or, you can make your own vanilla extract using the following recipe. When your extract runs out, don’t throw the vanilla beans away—you can simmer them with milk to make a delicious pudding.
Makes 2 ounces
- 4 vanilla beans
- 2 ounces alcohol (such as vodka, rum or brandy)
- Slice the vanilla beans in half lengthwise and place the beans and alcohol in a covered glass jar.
- Let sit for 2 to 3 weeks; then the extract is ready for use.
Source: Bown, Deni. The Herb Society of America Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1995.