A couple of years ago I bought a big bag of fair-trade vanilla beans and used the seeds–a.k.a. the caviar of the beans–often and deliciously. Somehow, I forgot about those the remaining beans. This week, while I was doing my monthly pantry reset, this time with the Essential Vegan Baking Course in mind, as it’s starting in just around 2 weeks, I found the beans in a container behind some bulk purchases. Although they were wrapped very well, they were dried out and brittle. I was understandably upset. Vanilla beans are precious and expensive. I decided to experiment with hydrating them. I’m sharing what I learned—so you don’t have to experiment, too! But do let me know if you’ve got a method that works.
Test 1 – I wondered, “what if I hydrated the beans by simmering them in almond milk?” Would I get beans that were just soft enough to cut open and recover the seeds along with vanilla flavored almond milk? Then, I’d add the spent beans to my jar of homemade vanilla extract, which is vodka and beans that I’ve been adding to for years.
Result 1 – The beans hydrated, and the almond milk, which was speckled with seeds, looked nice. But, it didn’t taste enough of vanilla to use as such. Or maybe it tasted like the packaged unsweetened vanilla nondairy milk I don’t care for. I will use this milk to make a sauce where the speckles of the bean will be apparent, and I’ll add some vanilla extract and sweetener.
Result 2 – I read about snipping the bottom of the beans and standing them in vodka or rum to hydrate. I bet that would work with dry beans, but mine were already softened. I decided to go for it anyway, and I am embarrassed to admit this to you, but I forgot about them for 3 days. When I finally did remove the beans, they were indeed soft. The seeds were mush, though, and they tasted like booze. That was terrific to add to my years old bottle of homemade vanilla extract, but not okay to use as seeds as you can see – they are on the knife in the photo below.
Test 2 – It is said that the best way to hydrate dried-out vanilla beans is to wrap them in a damp cloth or paper towel and microwave them briefly. I don’t use a microwave, and I’m not going to judge you if you do, but what I did instead was place the last of the dried out vanilla beans in a shallow dish and poured boiling water over them. I covered the dish with plastic wrap and set them aside for 10 minutes.
Result – Still hard at 10 minutes, but 20 minutes was the charm. The time depends, of course, on the relative dryness of the beans. The end result was beautiful vanilla bean seeds/caviar/cream.
It’s now time to make to make some Vanilla Custard Cream, Panna Cotta, or Vanilla Ice Cream!
There are many fine brands of vanilla available, but remember to use pure vanilla extract and not the much cheaper synthetic vanillin which is fake vanilla, made from wood pulp, and may be produced using petrochemicals and byproducts from the paper industry. My preferred brand is Singing Dog Vanilla.
Did you know?
- Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, after saffron.
- Vanilla comes from an orchid, the vanilla orchid, which is a vine-like plant that grows up trees.
- The part of the plant that is used is the pod or the bean. They are picked unripe and dry from 2 to 6 months.
- Vanilla beans contain thousands of tiny black seeds that add a potent vanilla flavor to whatever you are making, and the black specks add color to the recipe.
- Vanilla extract comes from macerating vanilla beans and mixing them with alcohol. Water- based vanilla extract is also available.
- Most vanilla comes from Madagascar, followed by Mexico, and Tahiti.
DIY Vanilla Extract
There are many ‘recipes’ for vanilla extract, but all are based on infusing vanilla beans in spirits, most often vodka for it’s neutral taste. You set the jar aside in a cool, dark place for 6 months or longer, shaking it every once in a while.
It is essential to start with a clean jar, even though you are using alcohol as the base liquid. I use a jar straight out of the dishwasher, but you could pour boiling water in the jar. Place a metal spoon in the jar first so the glass doesn’t shatter. Pour boiling water over the lid, too.
The amount of beans per cup of vodka seems most often to vary from 3 to 6. The more vanilla beans you use, the more potent the resulting Vanilla Extract. I do use this homemade extract, but honestly I don’t find it as potent as ones I’ve purchased, and I do find the alcohol more pronounced. Homemade Vanilla Extract makes a wonderful holiday gift.
To make DIY Vanilla Extract:
- Use excellent quality vodka and good vanilla beans!
- Pour vodka into a clean glass jar, one with a tight fitting lid.
- Put the beans on a clean cutting board. Using a small knife, slit each of the beans in half, lengthwise.
- Put the beans into the jar of vodka, cover tightly and shake. Label the jar and include with the date.
- Store in a dark cool place to infuse, for at least 6 moths. Make a note for yourself where it is and shake every so often.
I’d like to hear from you about your experiences making homemade extract. Have you ever made your own vanilla extract? What worked for you? Did you enjoy the flavor?