A vanilla bean should be flexible enough that it can be tied into a knot, Craig Nielsen of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas tells The Chicago Tribune. Air, light and heat are enemies of this baking staple, which gives dishes purer vanilla flavor than vanilla extract does.
Wrap Them Up
Stow vanilla beans in an airtight container. Seal them in a jar with a lid or a food storage container. Double-bagging the beans in plastic bags or wrapping them in several layers of plastic wrap will also work. Some vanilla companies sell vials with airtight stoppers, which work well for storing a small number of beans.
In the Dark
Vanilla beans are best kept in a cool, dry and dark place. For most people, that means the kitchen cupboard is a good spot to store them. Place the beans at the back of the shelf so they won't be constantly exposed to light when the cupboards are opened and shut.
Never store vanilla beans in the refrigerator or freezer. These cold spots will cause beans to mildew.
Vanilla beans should last for up to two years when they're stored properly. But like most spices, the earlier they're used, the better. Aim to use your beans within six to eight months.
It's not uncommon to see white crystals form on the outside of vanilla beans. These aren't mold, they are a sign the beans are good quality and full of flavorful vanillin. Fuzzy mildew can also form on the beans, and you should throw out any beans that develop it.
To make sure what you're seeing is vanillin crystals rather than mold, look at the beans in sunlight. Vanillin crystals will shimmer like frost. Mildew will look dull.
Using Vanilla Beans
If a bean isn't yet brittle, use a sharp paring knife to carefully slice down the center. Spread the bean open on a flat surface and scrape the knife across it. Use the vanilla seeds in any recipe that calls for vanilla extract. The seeds of one bean typically equals approximately 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, but a bean that's especially large or intense may be the equivalent of 2 or 3 teaspoons of extract.
If the beans have dried out an become brittle, you can still use them.
- Fill a jar or glass with warm but not boiling water. Submerge the bean in the glass and cover it with plastic wrap. Let the bean soak for about 15 minutes or until it's soft, then split it and scrape out the seeds.
- Add the dry bean to a pot of simmering milk or cream to flavor the liquid with vanilla. Use the liquid to make hot chocolate or in a sweet recipe. Discard the beans.
- Grind the dried beans using a food processor or spice grinder. Add a pinch of the powder to cookies and cakes -- not in place of vanilla extract, but as a flavor boost -- or mix it with sugar. Use vanilla sugar in any sweet recipe.
Use vanilla beans to create homemade vanilla extract. Place several beans in a jar with 1 cup of vodka. Store the sealed jar in a dark, cool place for about six weeks.