Vanilla beans are the natural, base ingredient used to make true vanilla extract. With the same heady scent and taste, vanilla beans provide a richer, more well-rounded vanilla aroma to sugars, sweets and baked goods. Vanilla beans are more expensive, however, and using them to flavor foods requires a bit more work.
Benefits of the Beans
Vanilla beans are sold as whole pods filled with many small brown seeds. Sold when fully mature, after fermentation, vanilla beans should be plump and smooth, not dried out. In addition to their deeper flavor and headier scent, vanilla beans add tiny specks of vanilla to baked goods. This is particularly attractive for iced cakes or cupcakes.
Slice and Scrape
To access the small, flavorful seeds, cut a vanilla bean pod in half lengthwise, then scrape out the seeds and add them directly to liquids or batters. Use whole vanilla bean pods in heated liquids -- such as hot chocolate -- where they have time to infuse the foods with their flavor. Remove them before serving. As for amounts, use one 2-inch piece of scraped vanilla bean to equal 1 to 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract.
Using Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract is made by taking crushed vanilla beans and soaking them in a mix of alcohol, water and sugar for several months. The aromas of the bean infuse the liquids, making extract. Pure vanilla extract, as opposed to imitation extract made with synthetic vanilla, must be 35 percent alcohol and use 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of steeping liquid. Because vanilla extract is already in liquid form, it can be added directly to recipes with no infusing time needed.
Extract vs. Whole Bean
In general, vanilla beans can be used in place of vanilla extract in almost all cases. However, if you are making vanilla sugar, use only the scraped pods -- never the extract -- as the added moisture can cause the sugar crystals to clump. To make vanilla powder, use whole vanilla beans. While vanilla beans provide longer lasting, richer scents and flavor, pure vanilla extract guarantees consistency. The strength, aroma and taste of vanilla beans can vary vastly between beans. Vanilla from Mexico may be less intense in flavor than vanilla from Tahiti, for example.
David Grimes has worked professionally as a chef since 2002, in settings as wide-ranging as a corporate caterer and as a sous chef in a Michelin-starred French restaurant. He has been writing about food since 2009 and published in "Time Out New York" and "Food and Wine" magazine.